The stories a nation tells itself are crucial to its identity, to who wields its power and, ultimately, where it is headed. Thus, we continue to debate the meaning of the Vietnam War, the appropriate way to display the Enola Gay, and the content of our children’s history textbooks.
But what if, as Peter Dimock contends, “Americans lack a language adequate to the history we are now living”? His new book, “George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time,” is the most important novel I have read about the deep implications of the events of the past decade and how we must learn to discuss them.
The book poses as a long letter written by Theo Fales to his acquaintance David Kallen. Kallen is clearly modeled on Daniel Levin, the former acting assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department, whose 2004 memo justified the Bush administration’s secret use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Fales sees that moment as a major turning point when America finally accepted its long-latent imperial destiny.
But Fales is not out to condemn Kallen. He acknowledges that although Kallen signed that infamous memo, he also submitted to waterboarding himself to establish an experiential basis for his findings. Fales argues that this act of courage is the exact antithesis of Kallen’s cowardly legalization of torture. Sensing the possibility of redemption, Fales wants to persuade Kallen to try out his new method for creating a different vision of what America has been and what it can be. It is Fales’s apparently honest belief that widespread adoption of his method will help the United States to become a truly pluralistic society and avert its imperial destiny.
Fales seems to understand that any hint of dogmatism will undermine his goal, so he continually reminds Kallen that he only wants him to give his innovative method a try. The bulk of “George Anderson” is Fales’s explanation of a four-week course that involves historical research, introspection and a reexamination of the values underlying our economic and political systems.
The most radical idea Fales proposes is that each individual should come up with a personal narrative of our national history, instead of having a shared national story that knits the country together. For instance, Fales’s new “narrative” is the life story of George Anderson, a slave born in 1817 who lives to be more than 110 years old. Although Dimock never explicitly lays out the story this replaces, the implication is that it is to substitute for the national narrative familiar to us from blockbuster Hollywood films, U.S. history courses and cable news: a nation born of rebellion against a monarchy and destined to spread freedom around the globe.
Meant to be repeated indefinitely, the plan entails the creation of seven “truth statements” and eight “constructive principles.” These abstract, somewhat mystical statements are then combined with personal stories according to a schema not unlike a musical composition. Modeled on a Jesuit method for communion with Christ, Fales’s program becomes an intriguing mix of art, music, aesthetics, history, politics and personal history.
The seven truths and eight principles initially feel as hermetic as Emily Dickinson’s poetry; one of the simplest goes, “Whenever events lose their independent value, an abstruse exegesis is born.” Yet their repetition builds familiarity to the point that they begin to impart a rich constellation of meaning. Dimock often encourages us to imagine how his book might resemble music, and indeed each statement resonates on a new octave every time we hear it. What emerges is an affecting, personal portrait of a unique mind as Fales draws the reader into alternative ways of looking at the world.
“George Anderson” is a novel that attacks weighty matters with great earnestness, but what saves it from stifling preachiness is Fales’s strange, ardent voice. He comes across as a slightly cracked true believer — either a genius or a madman. By leaving Fales’s mental soundness unclear, Dimock establishes enough ambiguity to transform his book from a sermon to an inquiry.
“George Anderson” requires some heavy mental lifting, but Fales’s seeking voice and the book’s innovative structure make it more of a calling than a chore. The rewards here are great: a fresh perspective on some of the thorniest events in recent American life, alongside enduring questions about history, art and narrative. Dimock’s slender, sturdy investigation into their meaning should inspire anyone who wants to think deeply and philosophically about this great nation.
Esposito is the author of “The End of Oulipo?”
Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time
By Peter Dimock
Dalkey Archive. 160 pp. Paperback, $14