Given your basically correct view of fiction as the master key to ethical development — it hammers the self into the ground as a marker, against which the chasm of intersubjectivity will get measured and bridged — I’m a little confounded by your review of Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery in COMMENTARY (January 2012).
There you conclude that the novel, which is an exploration of how the psychoses of anti-Semitism get codified as works of language and transmitted as categories of thought, would have been “more successful” as a non-fiction “literary history of anti-Semitism.” For myself, I’m willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.
First the requisite throat-clearing. There’s no doubt that a literary history of anti-Semitism written by Umberto Eco would become canonical. One can imagine essays that would blend his scholarship on medieval history, semiotics, and aesthetically-mediated judgment. Some tropes have inertia and tenacity while others are much thinner, requiring careful preservation and insulation to survive. Accusations of Jewish dual loyalty, always intertwined with insinuations about Jewish wealth, are ubiquitous. They thrive even in societies where there are few or no Jews to accuse of disloyalty. But the link between Freemasonry, Darwin, and Jews — unpacked with clarity by Hamas Deputy Minister of Religious Endowment Saleh Riqab on Al-Aqsa TV a few years ago — remains to be dug up. Somebody had to put that insanity in a book.
But are we really that deprived of non-fiction on the Protocols? Google Scholar returns over 6,000 results on the topic. Restricting by “literary history” still gets over 150 hits. Sure Eco would have added something. But would it really have been that much?
Anyway, our more pointed difference isn’t so much about costs as benefits. You don’t seem to see much value in having The Prague Cemetery be fiction. Beyond the “literary history” opportunity cost, you just don’t think it’s a very good novel. I want to push on the reasons you give, because I think they’re question-begging in the most precise way. More on that at the very bottom.
The value of Eco’s fiction is that he gets to dazzle with form/content games that are beyond almost any other author. In Foucault’s Pendulum the characters develop a grand conspiracy, explaining to the reader what makes a grand conspiracy work, as a plot unfolds that may or may not be a real grand conspiracy but that tracks in its features the fake one (I can’t find the exact quote right now but the key is something like “it explains everything or it explains nothing,” a cheeky inverse of the si omnia, nulla maxim that ate up a decade of theorizing in my field of rhetoric). In The Prague Cemetery the reader gets a fictionalized account of . . . a fiction. Dark, fanciful, and deliberately surreal plot points are woven into the writing of a dark, fanciful, and surreal plot. The slightly unreal pathos of the novel tracks with the pathos of the Protocols.
Eco’s ability to play those games is just as singular as his ability to pen interesting literary histories, so the opportunity cost is analogous. The question is whether those aesthetic gymnastics have any value. A good semiotician, Eco knows that literary works can and should index all kinds of social conditions. There’s value in gesturing toward what might be called — forgive me — our vaguely reflexive postmodern condition. Explanations have lost their innocence. We are constantly bouncing back and forth, on the level of daily politics and certainly on the level of daily political journalism, between the substance of arguments and how they’re produced. Between journalism and journalist, biased reporting and bias, policy and politics, and so on.
One of my favorite examples on this point actually comes from an interview with Eco. He was asked about Dan Brown’s disgrace of a novel. The naïve answer is to say that The Da Vinci Code is the pop version of Foucault’s Pendulum, and that Dan Brown is a poor man’s Umberto Eco. It’s hardly original, but good enough for cocktail parties. But Eco’s response was on a different level. I can’t shake the feeling that his answer is quietly and very straightforwardly brilliant:
My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff. . . . [I]n Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.
All of which brings us back to why I think it’s question-begging (and symptomatic!) that you find the novel underwhelming. You take issue with how none of the characters “faces any decisions that could have gone the other way.” That’s the result of them writing themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction. The Protocols exists “outside” the novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.
More explicitly you insist the novel finally breaks apart when “the form of the novel uncomfortably begins to mirror the Protocols: a cycle of set speeches with noisy narrative machinery to get from one to another.” I would suggest that’s the point.