George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time
by Peter Dimock
Dalkey Archive Press, Forthcoming February 5, 2013
158 pages / $11.20 Preorder from Dalkey Archive
In 1998 Dalkey Archive Press published a slender volume with the title A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family. This novel joined the list of new fiction at Dalkey that has quietly developed a reputation for publishing works of significant literary value rather than commercial prospects. Indeed, when the late John Leonard reviewed the novel in The Nation, he commented that it had been brought out “almost secretly,” words that surely disconcerted Dalkey’s publisher John O’Brien whose promotional budget must be infinitesimal when compared to that of Random House or HarperCollins.
A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family was the first novel by Peter Dimock, a highly respected editor in New York who was at the time working as editor and director of academic marketing for Random House. Dimock is a veteran of Sonny Mehta’s regime at Random and a long-time friend and associate of Toni Morrison, whom he accompanied to Stockholm in 1993, but Dimock is still otherwise unknown beyond a small circle within New York’s literary establishment.
These days Dimock is working as a freelance developmental book editor and as editor of an online journal on the social implications of contemporary finance titled Rethinking Capitalism. (The journal attempts to foster communication between academics and financial professionals on the social creation of value and the market culture of global finance.) This is a far cry from Dimock’s origins as a student of American History and his own literary inheritance as the son of the classical scholar George Dimock, Jr. who, in the 1950’s, published an article in The Hudson Review titled “The Name of Odysseus” that had a wide impact upon Homeric and literary scholars.
Looking back after a dozen years at Dimock’s first work of fiction, those who read it can still marvel at the uniqueness of the book. The novel purports to be a letter from the disgraced son of a powerful American family (a son whose sanity and capacity to live without supervision have been questioned) to two nephews during their childhood and promising the distribution of substantial monies when each reaches his majority. The narrator’s father has been a principal architect of the Vietnam War, and the narrator, Jarlath Lanham, resisted that war by the means his class and privileged upbringing afforded him. Jarlath’s older brother, out of loyalty to his father, served in combat in Vietnam and has returned with unaddressed psychological trauma.
The reader gradually realizes that there is a desperate gesture at historical coherence propelling the composition of the letter. The letter itself lays out, in schematic order, the means by which the oldest surviving Latin rhetoric, Rhetorica ad Herennium (originally attributed to Cicero but since assigned to an unknown author whose style betrays him to be the ancient equivalent of a literary hack), can teach his nephews the art of “the good man, speaking well.” Woven into the text is a gradual anatomy, performed for the boys’ benefit, of their family’s sense of invincible rule, the war crimes of one member, the white-hot hatred of Jarlath for his father—and a set of secrets that unravel like a murder mystery.
But leaving aside the novel’s structure, it has a special quality in its DNA: It invites—and requires—re-reading. There are countless writers today producing well-written and entertaining novels that one reads, but forgets, as soon as the last page is turned. Dimock is clearly different, though what he does is not so clear.
Now Dimock has produced a new novel, with a new narrator and a new method that doubles down on the wager that its puzzling surface will convince the reader to re-read a complex text as he gradually locates cracks and instability in the novel’s representations. Something happens within the reader who makes that attempt. In the afterword to George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, Dimock states quite plainly, “I [am] convinced…that Americans lack a language adequate to the history we are now living.” Dimock’s novel proposes a new path and opens a door to it.
Of course novels tell a story. Any agenda beyond that is suspect. I strongly hold to this rule, and it has served me well as a reader. However, I have known Peter Dimock for over two decades as a friend and fellow musician (he is an amateur cellist), and I know him to believe that language, when it breaks down, will sometimes find means other than narrative to restore itself.
George Anderson tells a story, albeit one woven by a speaker who may be in some kind of rapture, or who is ironic, or who is mad, or who is all three. Theo Fales is a literary professional (an editor, with connections to the highest levels of American power) who has been moved to write to an attorney high-up in the U.S. Department of Justice by a set of circumstances that have produced either a revelation or a breakdown. The attorney, David Kallen, is responsible for having composed and signed the memorandum affirming the legality of waterboarding and other techniques used by the U.S. interrogators when questioning suspected terrorists—a memorandum composed after Kallen himself has asked to be waterboarded in order to test the definition of the phrase “severe pain or suffering” in the United Nations Convention Against Torture to which the U.S. became a signatory in 1988 under Ronald Reagan. Fales has decided that he and Kallen must meet (they went to the same college but didn’t know each other there) and come to an equal understanding.
But Fales has a “method” he requires that Kallen use to prepare himself for their meeting/confrontation. What follows is an increasingly complex—and disturbing—flow of paragraphs and sentences that start to overlap and repeat, as Fales interjects autobiographical revelations. It is here that the reader may become dubious as to the speaker’s communicative competence. Why listen to the ravings of psychosis outside a clinical setting?
George Anderson has a roster of characters whom we meet only as objects and events in Fales’ text, that, partly as a result of repetition and changes upon individual words and phrases, becomes increasingly incantatory, even hallucinatory. The fragmented utterances of the novel cumulatively create a composite portrait of the full interior landscape of Fales’ obsessions. Fales’ letter ends with two actual historical documents excavated by Dimock. These are reproduced in their entirety.
For a start, a reader will find three historical characters whose presence in the novel provides clues to Fales’ overarching scheme: John Coltrane, Ignatius of Loyola, and the ex-slave who lends his name to the book, George Anderson.
Ignatius, a Catholic saint and founder of the Society of Jesus, has given Dimock the framework for Fales’ method, namely the “long retreat” required of Jesuits and called “The Spiritual Exercises.” Considered by some observers to be an administered technique for psychic suicide, the retreat is held by others, including the many who have voluntarily and devoutly gone through the four weeks of practice the exercises prescribe, to produce not only a change of heart but a willing enrollment in a militant group. The Jesuits are not by chance the largest and most powerful religious order in the Catholic Church. And it is not by accident that Ignatius’ ultimate goals included a special vow of obedience to the Pope in Rome. Nothing less could make a Counter-Reformation successful. Nothing less, paradoxically, the reader realizes, is needed by Fales himself to create any self-understanding among those who serve the American Empire as its disciples and masters.
Coltrane (one of the great musical geniuses and masters of compositional form) makes a more participatory appearance in Dimock’s novel as Stephen Frears, a Jazz performer, composer, and African-American. Famously Coltrane said of his compositional method, “I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once.” That statement accords with Coltrane’s technical mastery of music and composition theory that explores the way western music is based on and exploits the overtone series, that is, the natural relationship of certain secondary notes to the main note that is actually sounded by some kind of vibration around a central pitch. The overtone series creates all the notes of a scale; the counterpoint of melody usually touches on some scale-note or notes of a particular chord. Coltrane however was not content to be linear in his compositional method. He ultimately chose to write melodies first rather than after laying down a harmonic, and controlling, scheme. He forced himself to find chords whose expressive energies seemed driven by the urgency of all the associations of his melodies, and not the other way around. Anyone who listens to a short work by Coltrane performed by him on the 1964 album Crescent, titled “Wise One,” will immediately see the wrenching emotional consequences of Coltrane’s ideas.
And likewise, as a consequence of a “conversion experience” listening to music at a memorial service, and personal contact with the African-American community out of which Coltrane emerged, Fales has decided to marry the art of music to the art of power. He wants his intended interlocutor to learn how to speak as if he was singing and listen to his own and others’ words as if he were a supremely gifted musician.
What has sent Fales on such a twisted path? In a word, he is like so many Americans trying to escape what has become our universal state: complicity. Peter Dimock was a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War. But how can he or anybody today free themselves from not only the war crimes of our nation but our impeccable rationalizations and numbing psychic denials of their occurrence and their consequences around the world? We buy corporate goods; our pension funds make corporate investments; we get all the benefits of a domination that enables the consumption of a huge percentage of the world’s resources while we number a small fraction of the world’s population. How different are we from citizens of the late Roman Republic that has been described accurately as “an oligarchy occasionally modified by elections”? How likely, at this late date, is it that we have not already succumbed to that republic’s imperial fate?
Fales’ “method” may not actually be Dimock’s own as a novelist. One aspect of this book may be especially evident to trained musicians. Within the long tradition of classical music and the genre of composition called “theme and variations,” there is a special category. Listeners generally expect that a tune (or “musical argument”) will be stated, embroidered, and then perhaps recapitulated. Bach’s Goldberg Variations does exactly that. The original theme is repeated at the end almost note for note thus giving a “backward glance to its progeny.” But other “theme and variations” works do almost the exact opposite. The final movement of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a sublime and other-worldly minuet, emerges with a sense of necessity that never could have been foreseen in the theme’s bumpkin three-step dance (composed not by Beethoven but by his publisher). It is as if everything that has gone before the final variation has meaning only insofar as it has sought and ultimately found what is said in the final notes. Yet another work, “Lachrymae,” by Benjamin Britten, opens with nearly atonal gestures from the instruments progressing to a climax which finally, calmly, leads to the original theme—by a sixteenth-century composer, John Dowland—that movingly concludes the work.
And so too may a final document that concludes the story we have been reading that has placed the name of the historical figure, “George Anderson,” at its center serve Dimock’s novel. Appearing throughout in fragments, the full story appears at the end, juxtaposed with an official government document and a newspaper article. Fales’ letter and personal struggles—his racism, his lust, his crisis, his self-loathing, his surmised redemption—have made it impossible to read those two documents as if they were merely pieces of information. In fact, what the documents actually say becomes impossible to contain within traditional language.
I do not know of any fiction that resembles Peter Dimock’s new novel other than his earlier one. It is possible to testify to the emotional power of George Anderson, but this novel’s final challenge to the reader, if he has been as deeply moved as the novel intends, is to require a personal summation of its meaning. Anton Chekhov once told another author that the latter had mistaken the writer’s task to be the solving of a problem. Chekhov insisted it was the writer’s duty to pose a problem, not resolve it. One way of formulating Dimock’s problem is to ask, “How can one be just and humane in an era of empire?” Another, darker way of putting it is to ask, “Has the original sin of slavery‑‑absolute possession of another, with the power of life and death–so corrupted our culture that our highest personal and national achievements will always be stained beyond redemption?”
The answers will be individual ones. They need to be sought with great urgency these days. In that cause it might help to re-phrase slightly Marx’s aphorism by saying that the task is not only to change the world but also to find an adequate language with which to understand one’s own participation in it and confront it.
Donald Dal Maso is a musician who writes about the Arts and Politics.