You're right about identity. Dickstein is a master of pithy summations, and one of his best is of Bellow's Herzog: "His whole life feels like a falling away from some authentic point of origin." Such a falling away is characteristic of this period as a whole; I was quite taken by Dickstein's comparison of the optimism of Depression-era culture to the paranoia (is that too strong a word?) of the Jetsons era. One of the virtues of this book that we haven't sung is its deep grounding in literature and the arts outside its period.
Viewed in this larger perspective, this book describes what used to be called the Death of the Novel. Dickstein puts matters euphemistically. He says that, facing competition from film, "fiction lost confidence in its power to encompass the world." He describes a "turn inward" among certain writers and a "shift to fable" among others. But he shows a major development of the time is a blurring of fiction and nonfiction—to the former's disadvantage. There had been romans à clef before, of course—but they were never (I can't think of any exceptions) a writer's masterworks, as the Zuckerman novels possibly are for Roth. And never before had the reading public had the sense that a man could devote his life to (and win the Nobel Prize for) basically riffing on his inner reflections, as Bellow did after Augie March and Henderson the Rain King.
I would have said before this "Book Club" that the shift from fiction to nonfiction was due to modernity's encroaching phoniness. The imagination is a natural function, and as the soul gets more and more entangled with busy-ness and technological gadgetry and other unnatural stuff, the imagination is bound to be less and less adequate to the job of soul maintenance. But I think you put it more smartly in saying, in effect, that the self is what's left over when social meaning vanishes. Either way, there's a paradox here—the "imagination" seems to flourish more in constriction (in one of Bernard Malamud's dank and cramped pickle shops, let us say) than in liberty (the "free" and "borderless" world of cyberspace, let us say). I'm not sure what I think about this. I'm not sure I want to think about this.
But I do wonder what it means psychologically. One of the shoes that doesn't drop in this book is the Freudian one. A striking aspect of the culture of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, of course, is its obsession with psychoanalysis—not just "the mind," or psychology, but real Freudian psychoanalysis—at every level of society. Any typist or truck driver was capable of boring passersby, or traumatizing offspring, with discussions of penis envy and castration anxiety and the like. Dickstein goes even further than that, describing his authors as "children of the Freudian century." [Ital mine.] He says Freud provided the secular equivalent of a sense of sin and evil.
But he never gets around to explaining why, and I rather wish he had. I've always thought the most lamentable development of the postwar authors' fascination with the "unconscious" was the way New Critics and the Literary Novel Industry colluded to create a warped idea of fiction. There was a kind of phony-unconscious theory of literature, in which reading the classics amounted to little more than decoding surface stories for the roiling Freudian imagery beneath. Most of my high-school English teachers subscribed to this method. Few were the classmates (unsurprisingly enough) whose novel-reading inclinations survived adolescence.
I'm glad yours did, though. It's a pleasure reading books with you. The Novel won't die on your watch.