In the novel, Theo Fales, editor of the American history and politics list at a major publisher, writes to attorney David Kallen — a fictive stand-in for Daniel Levin, former acting assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel and author of a 2004 memorandum on torture — urging him to undertake a month-long contemplative practice that Fales has devised, and through which a person may “[rid] the self of its attachment to empire and [create] a true reciprocity of equal historical selves.” Fales’s explication of his method, addressed throughout to Kallen, comprises the novel. His instructions are highly detailed: to follow his method would mean coming up with a master narrative, a governing scene, four historical subjects, seven truth statements, and eight constructive principles of composition, and meditating upon these in ways and for durations of time he carefully dictates. The method prescribes, Fales writes, “precise procedures for converting contemplative juxtapositions [. . .] into the internal mental sound of a single musical note being sung by a human voice.” That is, the aim of Fales’s method is to transcend language, to convert language into image, and image into music — and not just any music, but a “love song in imperial time.”
Fales instructs Kallen — and, through the use of the second person, us — with grandiose sincerity. He is devoted to his aim: to liberate us from American empire and its discourse, to create a “society of equal historical selves.” In his devotion he repeats himself and becomes increasingly strange, his mental stability questionable. His is a voice of the upper middle class, “our class,” as he calls it: Fales and Kallen both went to Harvard, and some months in the future, both are scheduled to attend the dedication of a new music archive and performance center, honoring a musician who has served as inspiration to Fales. “I know that you and I are the same person,” he says to Kallen, meaning that their class, white middle-aged male Ivy League graduates, bears a special responsibility for American empire and its sins.
But why has he chosen Kallen in particular as the ideal subject for his method? In his work for the Office of Legal Counsel, Kallen elected to undergo, at the hands of Special Forces trainers, what the euphemism of the time called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Kallen’s task was to write a new memorandum, replacing previous Bush administration opinions on torture, to address the disturbing legal situation of 2004, which the reader may well recall, when a series of opinions severely contracted the definition of torture and permitted long-prohibited practices such as waterboarding, thus (in Fales’s words) “granting permission to the President, Vice-President, and Secretary of Defense of the United States to order torture without fear or threat of prosecution for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Kallen entered this debate bodily; having experienced these techniques, he declares them to be torture, contradicting earlier equivocations. Fales commends Kallen’s bravery and asserts that this act, subjecting himself to what the enemies of his state had suffered, “made and makes another history possible.”
But, as we know, this new history did not take place. Rather, the 2004 memorandum Daniel Levin authored in fact permitted torture to continue and granted immunity to those who had perpetrated it. Levin’s actual memorandum, with its vital, exonerating footnote, is included in full within the novel. As Fales says to Kallen:
In the event you called it torture — in your mind, with your voice, and in the pain and panic in your body. [. . .] Then, by adding the footnote you included later, you declared torture legal when used on those we held within our control. Did you do so out of a sense of devotion to the duties of your office to support the executive branch — or did you do so as the result of a direct, illegal order?
A text purportedly meant to end torture instead achieved the opposite, lending torture yet greater authority. Since Kallen has offered up his own body as proof, who could now counter his words? Fales takes it upon himself not only to counter the justification for torture, but to alter the hearts and minds of the empire that practiced it, to find a means by which we might all live another history. His impulse is truly toward elegy — for the victims of America’s recent neo-imperial wars, for a history of equality and anti-imperialism that has never been lived — though his method manifests a peculiarly American optimism.
There is a growing body of commendable literature from within the American empire addressing its past decade of conflict and misdeed, the wages of the Bush administration’s “global war on terror,” and although the Obama administration has distanced itself from this name, clearly the spirit of the war has endured. There have been lauded realist novels set on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; more experimental engagements, much less widely read than they deserve, include Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville, Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction, the body of work of Etel Adnan (interestingly, all writers born abroad who immigrated to the United States). On the one hand, perhaps it’s too soon to make such lists; on the other, it feels late, as though what I want from every book I pick up is that it might (to echo Fales) speak to the present political moment and how to live in it. Given the number of articles that debate the nature of “post–September 11” American literature, it seems I’m not alone in this desire. Peter Dimock’s novel should claim a place of honor in any such canon. Early in the novel, Fales tells Kallen, “At my method’s end I hope both of us will have a way to approach the people waiting in Fallujah to talk with us about the common history we have made.” Haven’t we American readers been hungering for such a vision, wishing we could begin to imagine that conversation? And here’s the man to offer it: Fales, steadfastly envisioning a “society of equal historical selves,” espousing his beautifully impossible method, his voice coming to us from the precipice of madness.
Fales is palpably anguished by his nation’s history of torture; his evocation of the horrors of slavery and the oppression of African Americans is testimony that torture is not new to American policy. Without making the connection explicitly — the novel spends relatively little time on the actual detainees of the “global war on terror,” seemingly assuming that readers will know enough of them — George Anderson reminds us that the torture perpetrated during this past decade was inflicted by men of one race on men of another: the history of American torture is a history of American racism.
George Anderson, Fales’s first “historical figure” and subject of his “governing scene,” is a former slave whom Fales learned of from a 1925 biographical feature. The novel foregrounds the fact of racism both in American history and in its protagonist’s life and thought. Fales returns over and over to a childhood memory of Anderson’s: at the age of 12 Anderson watches as his older brother Robert is beaten to death, slowly, over the course of a day, by the plantation’s master and overseer. It’s common knowledge that Robert is also the master’s son. Throughout the novel Fales refers to all war as “fathers killing sons,” a moving shorthand.
Fales started work on his method after experiencing a vision: in the vision, his former nanny, a woman from Jamaica who cared for him as an infant when his mother failed to, returned to visit him when he was a young boy. “I am valuable because she came back,” he states (as is his way, over and over again). It was through this vision of her that he could believe “that a New World history of true love was both possible and inevitable.”
George Anderson was a devout Christian who “did not cast off the chains of slavery” at the end of the Civil War, but at a camp meeting where he found his Savior: his spiritual salvation was, by his account, more vital than his earthly liberation. Theo Fales, however, belongs to the contemporary, secular left. His contemplative method is based on a Jesuit practice, but God and faith are absent. In their place he offers his theory of “one true love”; he posits the “ideal of love between spouses” as the purest ethical relationship, the basis for his transformed society — eros as means to agape:
Bourgeois good faith finally rests on the ideal of a lasting community of love founded on the ideal of love between spouses. This love — along with autonomy and cultivation — founds a concept of a universal, shared humanity whose freedom of action and reciprocity constitutes the transcendence of modernity without appeal to religion of any sort.
Fales’s “one true love” is not his wife, from whom he has separated and who is barely mentioned, but rather a musician set to perform at this very same dedication event (where he’ll meet Kallen — the plot is, admittedly, complicated). He fell in love with her, he claims, “from the very first notes she sang.” This idea of “one true love” is so clearly superficial — a midlife crisis, one might say unkindly — that although it seems of utmost seriousness to him, we aren’t convinced. Now, Fales’s method may border on the insane, but otherwise its emotional and ethical foundations are sound: we are compelled by the urgency with which he writes to Kallen; we are roused by his vision of truth and reconciliation in Fallujah and moved by his idiosyncratic elegy for the past decade’s wars. But he places the idea of true love at the center of his discourse, when it’s the weakest aspect. Inevitably, this reduces him in our eyes; it also makes us more aware of the vacuum created, on the contemporary American left, by the absence of religion. Surely — as we follow Fales’s reasoning — models of equality and reciprocity would be needed for any communal transformation; surely, we readers on the left believe, there are sources of ethics and models of shared humanity outside of religion. Fales offers “true love” in this role, but it rings hollow. We’re left to wonder: is “true love” the thread that, when pulled, unweaves this whole fantastic tapestry?
And so we must own up to what Dimock has known all along: as his name should have warned us, Fales cannot succeed. Consider again his chosen interlocutor: a man who undertook a harrowing physical and mental procedure in order to “make another history possible,” and yet who failed, resoundingly so. Fales writes to him, in the language of a manual — that most dangerous genre during the years of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the novel includes some sickening quotations — proposing a mental and, if not physical, then sensual procedure he might undertake to, well, “make another history possible.” Fales acknowledges momentarily the similarities, asking Kallen about the memo he wrote, the memo that described and then legalized torture: “When you wrote these words, what images did you attach to them in your immediate thought?” In both endeavors, Kallen’s and Fales’s, there was enormous hope. And yet Kallen’s only damns him and us further, and Fales’s is fantasy, if not madness.
Or, not quite madness. For we still have in our hands this novel, the method by which his method was envisioned. Through it we’ve experienced a distinctly American hope for a new American self, an American narrative without empire. “Compose in your mind a narrative of democracy in which the US state is the means of accomplishing justice,” we are told, and we try. That we cannot achieve this, that we witness the failure of this hope, means only that we acknowledge where we already are, where we have been for some years. “History,” as Fales tells us, “is a discipline with which to think from a place you are not.” What a remarkable novel: for a few radically hopeful lines at a time it imagines that a new history might be possible, imagines what it might mean to imagine this. Perhaps we cannot see and hear this history as clearly as its protagonist can. But we have for a moment felt his moral devastation and his hope as our own — no small feat for a novel in imperial time.
Hilary Plum is the author of They Dragged Them Through the Streets.