In the case fo Peter Dimock's A SHORT RHETORIC FOR LEAVING THE FAMILY unconditional praise seems unnecessary for this book already belongs among the handful of works of the twentieth century American literature which make themselves indispensable for any future thinking and writing on this side of the Atlantic. Its remarkable economy, the breadth and the depth of meaning that increasingly resonate with each transpiring sentence add up to a silent intensity of conviction which which appears as if from another world and a different age. While taking on what is undoubtedly the the single most defining horror of our times, namely, mass murder under the auspices of state ideology, Dimock has succeeded in no less than transforming the notion of literature as we know it. In the manner in which he did this he virtually has no predecessors, except perhaps for the German-Jewish poet Paul Celan, himself caught in a paradox of dealing with Holocaust through words.
Dimock's book is constructed as one long letter written by Jarlath Lanham on the eve of Gulf War to his nephew General ann to Des, the son of his father's ex-lover Lena. This letter is a part of a legacy accompanied with a substantial amount of money which the boys are to open at the time of Des' legal maturity - he is the younger of the two - on September 9, 2001. Jarlath himself is a recent convalescent of a psychiatric hospital and son of Richard Lanham, the special national security adviser to the President in 1965, and the chief architect of the American involvement in Vietnam. The purpose of Jarlath's letter is, in his own words, "to provide you [Des and General] with the means, should you find it necessary as I now do, to leave the Lanham family." What follows is an argument against the Father - partly an invective and an incantation, and partly an elegy permeated with muted anger - accompanied with a method for a different history.
Intent on instructing the boys with the rules of ancient rhetoric which will enable them to condemn and reject the legacy of Father, Jarlath structures his letter around the rhetoric's four faculties: invention, arrangement, style and delivery, with memory, the fifth, and for Jarlath, the most important faculty, left out and treated throughout the narrative as its central subject matter. This is accomplished through an extraordinary method in which Jarlath combines photographs left to him by his brother AG with the images of the family history in order to provide Des and General with the backgrounds against and through which they will develop their ability "to discuss capably those things that law and custom have assigned to the duties of citizenship, and to secure as far as it is possible, the agreement of their hearers."
The contents of those photographs and the particular details of Jarlath's method should remain for each reader to discover on his own. But what needs to be said is that in this short book Dimock accomplishes what has been in one way or another the goal of modern literature ever since Flaubert's famous struggle with style. Dimock's combination of the scientific language of the rules of ancient rhetoric and the narrative poetry of the history of the Lanham family results not in a typically post-modern confusion of styles which often breeds entertaining yet often superficial and frivolous prose. On the contrary, it in a sense surpasses that linguistic Babel and errupts into something that transcends language, namely, an ekphrasis, a description of those photographs and images from the family history, a memory which Jarlath claims is the basis of language and hence political action. This strange and unsettling mixture of languages is also what precipitates the uniqueness of Jarlath's voice, it's poetry-like quality along with its deafening repetitions, and what must sound to the rest of us, slightly mad insistence. But when we realize that behind Jarlath's condemnation of his Father lie millions of dead Vietnamese, it is hard to ignore the courage and determination with which he provides Des and General with a choice for a different history.
Among other themes which Dimock's book directly or indirectly addresses - and there are many - one, however, stands out in its importance and in the treatment it receives. I know of no other book in the contemporary American literature which deals with the question of race with such intelligence and equanimity. The place at which it emerges in the novel is the very beginning, where Jarlath "for rhetorical convenience and prolepsis" includes Des in the Lanham family and burdens him with the same opportunity and responsibility as he does General - the boys are given the same amount of money as well as the same method. They are, on the other hand, equally burdened by Father's legacy and the choice to define themselves against it. They are in this sense made brothers, they at least partly share a common history and are given a chance to have a common future. The only place in the book where we learn that Des is an African-American, however, is the moment of his mother's sudden protest - a moment of truth about her relationship with Jarlath's father - against a slide showing the execution of a random Chinese thief during the Boxer rebellion in 1904. She identifies her own relationship with Jarlath's father with the randomness of this horrible act and exclaims "Any brown girl will do!" These two details are almost unnoticable in the larger context of Jarlath's letter and yet they are absolutely fundamental and at the center of Jarlath's and Dimock's project.
There is nothing quite like Dimock's book in the contemporary American literature. It is writing for which we still have no name. But one can be almost sure that this is what literature will, or should look like in the next millennium.