The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Lyrics for Love and Loss

Peter Dimock
George Anderson
(Dalkey Archive, 2013)

I would like to attempt a transparent approach to a mysterious subject. It so happens that a reviewer of popular novels and novelettes, in preening a given text for discussion, will routinely open with a quote or anecdote that tries to set it and the reader along the same brief axis. The idea is to smooth the transition into the unknown work at hand. So for the purposes of prying open George Anderson by Peter Dimock, I have selected a line by Erich Auerbach that runs “Whenever events lose their independent value, an abstruse exegesis is born,” though it actually appears, initially uncredited, a fifth of the way into Dimock’s brief and utterly unprecedented new novel. “Unprecedented,” of course, is another book review cliché, and I suspect in this case slightly inexact. Because if George Anderson is the “abstruse exegesis” that the mucked-up modern world needs now, the point isn’t that it stands beyond the conventions on which readers of criticism are weaned. It’s that it is the rare work of art that encapsulates even what it rejects in its predecessors. It is, you might say, an Everything book: not so much a narrative as a model for living.

Dimock’s form, a bizarre political recombination of epistle, legal brief and Jesuit breviary, is so unusual as to confound exegesis. So let’s take the hard way in. This “historical method,” as practiced by our hero, Theo Fales, has been devised because “coherence…can have no other source,” at least for a knowing accessory to Empire like Fales, whom we know only by his own estimation: a nebbish Senior Executive for a publishing house that specializes in hack-political memoirs by unreconstructed war criminals. In the course of researching a jingoistic bestseller by a George Tenet-like apologist for the policies of the Bush Administration, he rediscovers an old Harvard classmate. Fales is convinced that this man, to whom the novel is addressed, is his spiritual bedfellow and ideal acolyte. His name is David Kallen and he is the author of the memorandum that found the methods of torture conducted at Abu Ghraib legal under the Constitution, a precedent Kallen officiated only after ordering his own waterboarding by Special Forces.

“You did something braver than I will ever do,” namely, “by signing that document you undid the truth you knew,” writes Fales, but not by way of accusation. Instead, the temple of complicity that Kallen made of his body, in a moment when for all time “the liberal logic of slavery prevailed over nature’s freedom,” makes him a sort of Christ, scrubbed in the ashes of Bush and Cheney. His consecration in the same redemptive waters with which America distilled its natural right to power more than endears him to Fales. It makes a new history possible, one that no longer exists to suppress the devastating reality behind the idea of America. It is a reality consistent from the country’s founding revolution and rationalization of slavery all the way to the expansion, in the 21st century, of widespread extrajudicial violence well beyond its borders.

“Our force of rule, in every moment, extends beyond all law. This is the secret of all totalitarian government.” The soul of this American empire’s citizens and servants may well be democratic; but the body politic is not. Here is the contradiction that Theo Fales has set out to resolve. His program for internal harmony consists of a four-week regimen. This alone, he writes Kallen, may restore the bourgeois freedom that consists in the pursuit of perfect love. The remainder of the ‘novel’ (for lack of a better term) lays out Fales’s method in tables, exercises and “constructive pairs.” And yet stories and subplots emerge from all this schemata just as they might in your average picaresque or coming-of-age yarn. Fales bleeds biography between colloquies and so we slowly learn of his love for a woman named Leda. But is she the lone glitch in Fales’s perfect system or another “master narrative?” Fales goes to great lengths to make clear that the practitioner of his method can select any story, within certain ideological parameters, to act as governing mnemonic. An ideal, in other words, “by which to live other than our present complacent fairy tale of destined consumer’s empire.” The one he has chosen is that of George Anderson. And here we begin again.

George Anderson, the man, is said to be the oldest living citizen of Trenton, New Jersey. Born a slave, and essentially living as one throughout the Reconstruction, it is not emancipation that sets George free (at least, according to the account that Fales has unearthed, included here in an appendix) but his conversion in a revivalist tent. His perfect faith serves Fale’s purposes, distinguishing as it does “freedom from the impunity of the American imperial state.” George Anderson, the novel, is Dimock’s second, following 1998’s A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family. He and Theo Fales were both prompted to write down their model for a millennial Book of Hours after learning how John Coltrane—here called Jason Frears—began his compositions with words that he later discarded as they found expression as music. “History as unbearable presence can take no other accurate, empirical form.” Such anyway is the contention of Fales, who it is probably safe to call insane without any fear of reprisal. Dimock’s intent is a more lucid thing, but no less incendiary: to lay bare all that is suffocated inside the lungs of American English.

It’s not far into George Anderson that the syntax that foregrounds all our best fables and entertainments begins to feel unreliable. Even the subtitle, Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, suggests something rancid about the language we use to tell ourselves about the world. Instead, we need an unheard music, improbably coaxed from the twinned histories of Anderson, the ecstatic slave, and David Kallen, the willful accessory to state-sponsored torture. This is the “love song” in question, to be sung by Leda, to whom Fales hopes to fit his song and to whom he writes the novel’s last, beautiful lines: “History creates an unformed future out of love’s immediacy: I’m valuable because she came back. Make reading this into love’s requited listening.” According to Dimock, even Capitalism’s triumphant obliteration of counter-narratives can become, at the last desperate minute, a love story.

Still, from what I’ve said so far, you might read George Anderson—as you must—as a cheeky avant-garde lark that finds fault with art’s failure to reach us in the world. In fact, it is its desire to be useful that, more so than its structural eccentricity, annexes it from the existing literature. To take Fales at his word would mean that it is the world—more specifically the country of criminals and consumers called America—that corrodes each word in advance. It would mean that events really have lost their independent value, “every moment forfeit in a history of absolute loss.” If so, Dimock has written the first novel to identify a different history. Or as he writes, to “imagine the sound of a lyric creating a politics for refusing empire.”


J.W. McCormack

J.W. MCCORMACK’s work has appeared in Bookforum, the New Inquiry, Tin House, N1FR, Publishers Weekly, and Conjunctions, where he is a senior editor. He currently teaches at Columbia University.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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