Friday, May 3, 2013

"Refuse empire; create reciprocity"

Leon Golub, The Arrest II, 1992

On the copyright page of Peter Dimock's new novel, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time (Dalkey Archive),  a curious set of subject headings appear:

1.  Book Editors--Fiction.  2.  Synesthesia--Fiction.

Such headings are rarely seen by themselves, and most certainly never together.  So not only are Library of Congress staff reading the books they catalog with attentive care, but they're thinking about them too in very serious ways.  The Synesthesia heading astutely recognizes a thread that runs through this brilliant and challenging work, but before looking closer at that, it's best to sketch out some of its basic facts.

The heart of Dimock's novel--his second--consists of a letter written by one Theo Fales to a man named David Kallen, a top-ranking attorney for the Bush Administration; the Kallen character has been described by Dimock as a fictional composite based in part on Daniel Levin, the real-life lawyer who served as Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel in 2004-2005, and who during that brief tenure voluntarily subjected himself (as does Kallen) to waterboarding in order to provide an informed opinion on the question of whether that technique might be considered a form of torture.   As part of a team that argued in the infamous "torture memos" for the legality of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques", Levin has been described in an interview by Dimock as a morally ambiguous figure.

Technically strangers (but tenuously bound as near-contemporaries at Harvard), the letter is an appeal to Kallen for a meeting to discuss the infamous memo and its implications.   The date of that hoped-for encounter, ostensibly coinciding with the dedication ceremony of a performing arts center that they both plan to attend, is set to take place on June 19.  Students of American history will recognize the significance of that date--Juneteenth--as commemorating the abolition of slavery; indeed, slavery figures prominently in Dimock's book, most clearly through the eyewitness account of a former slave--the George Anderson of the title--who had seen his brother beaten to death by their master.  This account, and the newspaper article from which it's taken, is proposed as one of the two main texts on which the men will meditate in preparation for their meeting.

These meditational exercises are the heart of the letter, and the source of much of its poetry.  Based on The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, they resemble some quasi-Oulipian algorithm running its adherents through a permutational schema of Master NarrativesGoverning Scenes, and Truth Statements.  Its procedures are far too intricate to explain or analyze here in any detail, but I can say that amidst its repetition--prayer-like at certain points, and bureaucratic in others--there is movement and, at times, jarring revelation.

Dimock's strategy through all this is risk-taking and thoroughly masterful; the voice of Fales veers between a lucid plea for civil discourse, and a patience-testing presumptuousness that a stranger might be willing to adhere to the exhaustive set of exercises laid out in the letter.  Near the beginning Fales writes that:

"My complicity summons angels singing--I know that you and I are the same person.  Somehow our entitlement to rule continues.  Surely this is a mystery in need of colloquy."

That brief passage offers a strong sense of the letter's complexity; in its evocation of angels and earthly law, there's an interesting resemblance to Daniel Paul Schreber's classic Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.  The very question of Fales's sanity is further complicated as it is set alongside the cold-blooded language of the actual memo in question, included toward the end of the book.  In the letter itself, Dimock at times adopts the legalese similar to that of the memo.  This is not so much an informed and acidic parody, like that of Gaddis or Pynchon; instead, Fales inhabits the language patterns of the man he's addressing and from there, moves seamlessly into an exalted lyricism.

And it's here that the notion of synesthesia comes in; many of the lyrical passages take us into the auditory realm, and with specific reference to music as a bearer of mystical messages.  Part of the meditational exercise calls for the development of a musical sound or note to accompany the scenes chosen for contemplation; this is derived in part from an anecdote about several compositions that appear on John Coltrane's 1964 recording of Crescent, said to have originated as individual words which served as the generative seeds for the music he then developed- once the music had taken shape, the words were then abandoned.

Coltrane appears in the novel as a fictional character (or rather, a character's legacy) under the name of Jason Frears.  Frears plays several roles in the narrative, including the man for which the performing arts center is named; a passage from a 1965 Coltrane interview also serves as one of the seven Truth Statements (others are drawn from sources such as Aristotle, Erich Auerbach, and Ralph Ellison) that form a crucial component of the meditational exercise.

At one point, the letter asks that Kallen "listen for a song sung inside the hollow bones of their wings in flight."  Elsewhere, Fales asserts that "With these notes and melodies together, we will imagine a New World reciprocity with which to live another history."

In the interview mentioned earlier, Dimock observes of the torture memo that "We're all habituated to it without having an adequate language or a morally or historically coherent imaginative vision with which to react to the implications of that habituation."  However the methods mapped out by Fales may fail in terms of any consensual understanding of how the world operates, it represents the beautiful vision of a way forward, striking against the use of language in the service of white entitlement, domination, and empire.


  1. Thank You for a deeply engaged essay, Mr. Supanick, that is so clearly in tune with the pervasive lyricism of this magnificent novel. I especially appreciate your reference to Schreber who experienced an agonized consciousness, from which the rest of us would hide ourselves, as a divine rapture.

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