The Niceness Racket
A Review by Lee Siegel
As I was trying to make sense of Dave Eggers’s strange new book [What Is the What], I came across a piece of writing that captured the general cultural atmosphere in which Eggers’s book took shape. Not long ago, in the course of reviewing Martin Amis’s novel House of Meetings, most of which takes place in a Soviet gulag, Joan Acocella bestowed on readers of The New Yorker this illumination: “Amis, like Primo Levi, his great predecessor in prison-camp memorialization, is able to calculate degrees of anguish.”
Amis’s great predecessor in prison-camp memorialization! If you had the sublime luck to be sitting in your dentist’s waiting room when you read that, you could have tried faking a sudden painful abscess and begging the nurse to infuse you with a triple dose of Demerol. That way, you might have lost consciousness before Acocella’s sentence became stored in your memory cells. Her remark was shockingly and multivalently out of kilter. “Predecessor” implies a position and function kindred to those of the eventual “successor,” and Amis is planets away from both Levi’s experience and his evocative power. Auschwitz was not a “prison camp,” it was a death camp. Levi’s testimony cannot adequately be described with the bland “memorialization”. And real writers, imaginative writers, writers such as Levi, do not “calculate” anything, let alone incalculable anguish.
You couldn’t blame Amis for Acocella’s insentience, but you couldn’t blame Acocella for banging her head against Amis’s novel until she apparently lost consciousness. The generation of people who survived the Holocaust and Stalin’s vast network of camps is disappearing, but the number of novels about modern genocide has increased, and most of them are written by people who have no firsthand experience of their subject on which to draw. This presents a curious problem. Bearing witness, even in fictionalizing form, to extreme historical events that you have experienced is one thing. It is quite a different thing to try to recreate extreme historical events that you have not experienced, and then to try to imagine what it would be like to think and feel your way through them. This is hardly an illegitimate endeavor — the imagination has an obligation to wrestle with even the most unimaginable experiences; but it is an intensely demanding endeavor, with moral and aesthetic pitfalls all around.