If I call Peter Dimock the Rube Goldberg of the American revisionist novel, I mean it as praise. A revisionist of course is no cartoon character, no more for the elite of our American Empire than for the hard-line Leninists who, a century ago, brandished the word against Leon Trotsky (before they put a bullet in him). A revisionist undermines foundational principles, whether Marxist principles or those of Dick Cheney. Yet Dimock’s brief assemblage isn’t subtitled “a love song in imperial time” for nothing. It seeks a counterpoint to anthems of Empire: an actual song. Composing that tune provides the text’s conceit, a bizarre and recursive set of “exercises”—a Goldberg device.
The “method” of George Anderson begins in meditation, often highly disturbing meditation. After that, the process turns both mystical and rootsy: dark thoughts turn to blue notes. With practice, even the ruling caste of this country should move “outside the cycle of owning everything and fathers killing sons.”
Grim seriousness, that is, informs the outlandish premise. Dimock’s construct whirls all over the room; no sooner does some story coherence get underway than it’s toppled, and at times, the novel will switch off between three or four distinct themes in a single paragraph. The text foregrounds the exercises, breaking into headers like “Table One” (and “Two,” “Three,” etc.), “Governing Scene,” and “Constructive Pairs.” Every title is followed by a thumbnail of what that step in the developing music requires. And yet, amid the chatter and sproing, with remarkable regularity, this instruction manual achieves a piercing clarity. It breaks into outcry:
In the New World we committed ourselves to redemption through the freedom of material possession. We asserted the ecstasy of possession without appeal to transcendence of any sort.
The “we” above includes the narrator Theo Fales. It’s he who dreamed up the exercises, in order at last “to sing a true history.” In his method, is there madness? Is Theo Fales a failed theosophist, his own notion of transcendence perverted by American late capitalism? Listen, it’s not even a question. The game in George Anderson isn’t the same as in Pale Fire (1962), the slow unveiling of an unreliable narrator. Rather, Dimock’s opening line claims a nutso “vision,” thanks to which Fales “knew that the present was a gift of time in which to sing a true history.” So too, he’s making an insane appeal; the bundle in our hands is a series of letters, with the exercises and attachments, intended to teach another man to sing with him. On top of that, Fales wants to tell this other man’s story.
Before he snapped, our narrator was a successful editor. He helped script a bestseller, the pompous (and fictional) Storm Warnings: War and American Leadership after 9/11, by one of the junta around Bush. Fales knew the territory, as both a Harvard man and a Yalie: “Our personal histories,” he declares, “entitle us to positions of comfort and rule.” Corporate publishing, indeed, helped him protect that position: “Over my long career…. I helped regulate a bourgeois ethical monopoly over the words by which we know ourselves….” Now, however, Fales has had his vision, his breakdown at a friend’s funeral. Now he believes the truth of Empire will be revealed by one of its legionaries: a White House flunky who, in 2004, signed off on a footnote to a memorandum that legalized torture.
The memo is real, and attached to the text. Its opening line, “torture is abhorrent,” resonates like something out of Orwell. At that time, the scandal of Abu Ghraib had called into question the abuses following 9/11, and so a utility man on Bush’s team, Daniel Levin, took an extraordinary step: he submitted himself to waterboarding. Afterwards, Levin signed off on the footnote with all its gobbledygook, and the screaming went on.
For Dimock, such hypocritical rigamarole must’ve been part of his inspiration. The letters are addressed to a...