Peter Dimock's George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time defies simple description. It is a novel where history meets method, and where narrative approaches madness. It's also a treasure trove of poetic prose that rewards careful attention. We asked Dimock, whose own novel challenges what we think we know as "history," to pick 10 books that do the same. These are the books to read when you want to jolt yourself out of your shell.
According to the novel’s liveliest, undisciplined, and most raucous traditions (and to the word “novel"'s etymology), the purpose of fiction is to bring readers “news” of the real state of things as experienced and expressed in everyday speech. The novel’s job is to reflect the truth of our lives in common in a way that official and respectable languages—whether these be Latin, law, economics, public policy, cybernetics, or professional humanism (the list goes on and on)—can’t. History is one of those respectable languages by which we expect to be instructed in navigating the present by placing that present within a story of grand human development headed toward some benign purpose.
During the past one hundred years, many novelists, poets, and others, have found themselves trying to puncture the confident grand historical narratives that the nineteenth century delivered to the twentieth and to the twenty-first. Ever since February 2, 1922, the publication date of Ulysses, for instance, James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus has been calling history “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Sometime in the years following WWI, Franz Kafka explained to his friend, Max Brod, that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” In the middle of WWI, Henry Ford said, “History is bunk.” In 1973, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow bore as its epigraph the voice of one of Hitler’s chief pioneers in inventing twentieth-century technologies of human extinction, Wernher von Braun, intoning his deep “belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.”
Here is a list of 10 works of literature, written or published between the 1927 and 2001, whose authors seem intent upon jolting their readers into radical distrust of the conventional history that they had been given through which to experience their present. The authorial voice controlling each of these novels, in one way or another, speaks in such a way that in surrendering to the book’s spell the reader finds consciousness enlisted, persuaded, seduced—aesthetically tricked—into experiencing emotional and psychological life jaggedly at odds with the conventional historical narratives on offer.
1. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil - Unfinished at Musil’s death in 1942 in self-exile from Germany in Switzerland (Musil early on saw what Hitler’s rule would mean), Man Without Qualities was begun in 1905 and over 1,000 pages of its first two sections were published in 1930. We are introduced to Ulrich, a mathematician and the man without qualities, through a gentle, lyrical meteorological incantation of the physics of weather patterns over Europe that are combining to produce “a fine summer day” in Vienna in August of 1913, exactly one year before the arrival of the Apocalypse of World War I in which Musil fought and was decorated. All through the novel, everything is working just as it should be according to the most advanced modern principles of science, learning, aesthetic, emotional, spiritual cultivation, and optimistic national pride. And nothing—no amount or quality of modern sensibility or insight will stave off the humanly engineered and contrived nightmares of history about to arrive and that have not departed.
2. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon - What if WWII was narrated as the victory of nuclear weapons as the future determining force in human history rather than as the triumph of democracy and the free world over the forces of fascism and totalitarianism? Gravity’s Rainbow gives us the answer.
3. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison - This is twentieth-century American history narrated from the perspective of a member of the community whose labor created the country and whose historical experience in the New World could provide the knowledge of the nature of modernity that might allow twentieth-century democracy to survive. But the narrator is also someone whom most of his fellow citizens simply refuse to see (and who are not consciously aware of this refusal). At the beginning of the novel the reader finds the narrator living underground listening to Louis Armstrong’s recording of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” The lyrics of the last verse go, “How will it end...Ain't got a friend/My only sin...Is in my skin/What did I do...To be so/ Black and blue?” The narrator comments, “This ordinary music demanded action of the kind of which I was incapable, and yet, had I lingered there beneath the surface I might have attempted to act. Nevertheless, I know now that few really listen to this music.”
4. JR by William Gaddis - Could a history be told simply in the form of the exchange of voices enmeshed in a phantasmagoria of living musical architecture made from their sounds but taken over for purposes of commercial exploitation and financial manipulation by forces that the voices themselves can never find a place from which to confront and directly engage? In this novel, Gaddis shows us that the answer is yes.
5. The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (especially the essay Conversation about Dante) -“Poetry establishes itself with astonishing independence in an extra-spatial dimension where it not so much narrates as acts out in nature by means of its myriad devices known as tropes.” Mandelstam, in the company of his wife Nadezdha, was continuously harassed, and was eventually tortured and killed on Stalin’s direct order in the 1930s for believing in, and acting upon, this principle and upon Osip’s definition of literature as “the yearning for world culture.” Stalin’s hold over history’s narration proved to be much weaker than theirs that has yet to disclose the full richness of its possibilities.
6. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany - In a pair of subversively interrelated essays, Delany, a revered science fiction author and queer theorist, addresses the “wonder-filled and rich” life of a wanderer through the bars, nightclubs, and porn theaters of pre-Giuliani New York City. Examining social networks of all kinds, Delany’s book is simultaneously a lament for vibrant places of cultural and social exchange razed by the juggernaut logic of urban commerce and a joyful celebration of the possibilities of warmth and pleasure in human relationships. It gives us the voice of one history swallowed by another – the stories of myriad hustlers, dealers, and working stiffs made invisible in Times Square’s later Disnification.
7. The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (especially Casabianca, Sestina, Over 1,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance) - In these three poems, and in many others, Bishop’s gentle, intricate art violently interrupts the dumb violence of events’ brutal, uncomprehended effects continuously suppressing the immanent transcendence contained in ordinary moments through the transactions of love they contain but which real events always intervene to smother. “Casabianca” departs from a once staple, now almost unreadable, sentimental narrative poem, written by British poet, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, in 1826, commemorating an actual historical incident that occurred during the Battle of the Nile in 1798 in which a young son of a French commander (his age is variously given as 10, 12, and 13) remains at his post on a burning ship and is killed when the flames cause the powder magazine to explode. Bishop turns this into a poem about love in which she imagines love as a school child standing on the deck of a burning ship trying to recite “The boy stood on the burning deck.” I imagine love trying to save history with its language when Bishop writes, “Love's the son stood stammering elocution while the poor ship in flames went down.” She ends the poem with the sentence, “And love’s the burning boy.”
8. The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov - The heroine who gives her name to the title does not show up until the reader is well into this surrealist narrative of Satan’s socialist realist return to Moscow during the Stalin era. But when she does enter, the novel becomes a poem of the transfiguration of an unspeakably murderous history by what an exasperated devil acknowledges, no matter what he does and despite his otherwise unlimited free-hand in directing human affairs, always manages to seep through the cracks of events: pity.
9. The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin - Unfinished at the time of his tragic 1940 suicide in flight from the Nazis, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project contains as wild a polyphony of voices, scenes, intentions, and experiences as early 20th-century Paris, the city that in Benjamin’s hands comes to embody the future as the possibly emancipative object of a detached observer’s sustained and wandering attention. Collaged from an astounding range of cultural, literary, and historical texts, it is a work that anticipates the intellectual diffusion, revelatory proximities, and productive displacements of the postmodern. Historical narratives appear next to poems, bursts of semiotics appear adjacent to physical descriptions of the book’s eponymous architectural structures, and the conversation never ends.
10. Beloved by Toni Morrison - This novel puts an end to the perennial competition among American authors to award themselves, or to be awarded, the crown for having written “the great American novel.” Beloved puts an end to the competition not by winning it (although it may have done that too), but by refusing the competition itself as a limiting and stupid enterprise to begin with. History is not a vehicle for literature. What happens is what matters. Beloved ends this way: “This is not a story to pass on. . . .By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss. Beloved.”