I’ve been on the road flogging my new novel The Identity Man - a process that actually has its pleasures. For instance, being interviewed about the book gives me a chance to put into words some of the thoughts and ideas that went into the writing of it, a chance to clarify what I see as some of the themes of the story.
The Identity Man is about a petty thief named John Shannon, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. Just as the cops close in, a mysterious stranger offers him a chance to begin his life again: a new face, new records, a new name. It’s a shot at redemption and a shot at true love. But the city in which he finds himself is a ghost town ruined by racial politics – identity politics as it’s sometimes called – and Shannon is soon in even more danger than he was when he started.
At the core of the story is a question: how free is an individual to redefine and reinvent himself? To put it another way, how much is each of us imprisoned by his genes, his race, his culture? It is a question I wrestled with mightily in my own journey from Judaism to Christianity. Was I bound by racial and cultural loyalty or was I free to follow my deepest beliefs – and if I did follow them, what would be the costs and consequences?
More than this, the question of self-invention is, in some sense, the great American question. Here where the many are meant to become one, we all find ourselves more or less cut loose from our historical and cultural moorings, offered a dangerous and exciting chance to establish our identities outside the bounds of any tradition but that of American freedom itself. This is at the heart of the process of assimilation and it is the theme of many of the best American stories, especially since the great waves of immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But judging by these stories, these cultural artifacts, our approach to the issue seems to have changed over time.
For instance, in The Adventures of Augie March, one of the greatest of American novels by the Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, the Jewish hero’s declaration of assimilation is strident and determined. “I am an American, Chicago born.” Even after a series of adventures that test his faith in the new land, he concludes: “Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”
That novel was published in 1953. Nearly twenty years later, there came another great assimilation saga, the film The Godfather. Here, though, assimilation is seen as a tragic impossibility. The family member intended to become an all-American success sinks back into the old country life of crime.
Today, personal identity and reinvention are the themes of the excellent TV drama, Mad Men. But in this story set in the 1960’s, the hero’s attempt to redefine himself is seen as a scam, part and parcel of his shady talent for advertising.
And indeed, the great cultural shift of the sixties was the beginning of identity politics: the idea that assimilation made unfair claims on minorities, that those minorities should rather stick together in order to demand redress of communal grievances. It is the left’s answer to racism despite the fact that it is clearly racist in and of itself.
My novel, inspired by my visit to New Orleans after Katrina, , is meant to examine the issue of identity in a different way. There are lot of people who want to lay claim to its hero Shannon, for good and ill, but in his own stumbling fashion, he is determined to find himself and be himself. He is, I mean to say, an American.