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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Destruction of the Temple

Barry N. Malzberg

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To purchase The Destruction of the Temple

Title: The Destruction of the Temple
Author: Barry N. Malzberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 1974
Length: 159 pages
Availability: The Destruction of the Temple - US
The Destruction of the Temple - UK
The Destruction of the Temple - Canada
La destruction du temple - France
Die Zerstörung des Tempels - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : convolutes itself into unnecessary difficultness, but some neat ideas well spun-out

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The cover-blurb of The Destruction of the Temple sums the novel up quite well; "The year is 2016, and President Kennedy is being murdered -- again and again and again ...". The explanation of what is (actually) going on is both simpler and more complex than that suggests, set in an America that is a radically changed one, marked by 'the Great Burning of 1988', which has split the nation into the relatively safe countryside and desolate islands of urban decay, populated by lumpen. The young narrator had pitched an idea to the controlling Committee, "in fulfillment of the degree for historical referent": he wants to venture into this other zone and there stage:

a reconstruction of an important historical event. What we have forgotten, living as we do, is that we are sunk in forgetfulness.
       His topic: the assassination of American president John F. Kennedy, in November 1963. He gets the go-ahead, and enters New York -- the stand-in for Dallas --, convincing the local lumpen to play the various parts by dangling the promise of amnesty for them, the possibility of leaving these urban zones and joining those in the would-be idyll of the countryside. He is basically directing a film, planning to record his recreation of the famous assassination -- but it becomes a loop of repetition which he loses control of and in which he becomes one of the players, with his expectation that the Institute and Committee have his back, ready to swoop in and retrieve him, dashed:
I feel myself collapsing. How much juice is there in me ? How much longer can I go on this way ? Eventually all of this, I am sure, will have a fatal effect, but they keep on running this as if the resources were infinite. What kind of Director is running this show ?
       When the tables have turned, the lumpen try to open his eyes:
     "I came to direct a pageant of reenactment, to retrace the past through its reconstitution in the present ..."
     "Words, all words."
     "I've lived all my life by them."
     "And that's been your error," she says, "that has been the tragedy of it. It is time to penetrate the words. It is time for you to see what has really been going on."
       This is a novel American decay, specifically its urban manifestation -- written in and in many ways of 1974 (the year before American President Gerald Ford essentially said New York City could 'drop dead' (more accurately: that he (i.e. the federal government) wasn't going to bail it out)). The narrator's thesis is:
The symptoms were the disease. All of it was misinterpreted. It wasn't that the cities were the syndrome of a corrupt and decaying culture, but that they were the corruption and decay, sending it in waves outward. You could cure the disease by curing the symptoms. The urban sociologists of that time misunderstood completely, you see. The problem wasn't to remake the cities in terms of an older, pastoral idealization, but to get rid of them. The problem wasn't to make the lives bearable or to attack root causes but rather to lop them off.
       As Committee (institution personified) notes, that's hardly much of an insight: "You have merely stated the conclusions and policies as they were implemented in the 1980's".
       In fact, the remaining city-dwellers, the lumpen, are peaceful and relatively harmless, and life in these urban zones elemental only in relatively benign ways. So, for example, they are baffled by the recreation, this idea of assassination (presumably one reason they're also not very good at it, to the frustration of the narrator, who tries again and again to get them to play it out right) -- "'But we do not kill here,' Oswald says, his eyes luminous, 'we have never killed'", but the narrator keeps pushing them to at least go through the played motions.
       One exchange the narrator has suggests the very different attitudes, one of the lumpen noting:
"Isn't there enough death in the world as it is without inventing more ?"
     "True," I groan, "true, but if we invent death then we feel we can control it"
       With its different layers -- the narrator's descriptions; the repeatedly recreated, in many variations, scenes; and dreamlike sequences -- and the way they are woven together, The Destruction of the Temple isn't straightforward -- and, indeed, the narrative can feel over-twisted. A significant part of the story, for example, involves obtaining the appropriate open-top vehicle, worthy of a President riding in -- much of which is well done, but doesn't tie in to much of the rest of the narrative particularly well.
       This is very much a novel of its times, of 1974, and the vision presented by Malzberg here obviously had much greater impact in that context; read now, parts are more historical curiosity (especially the urban world, and opinion of it, of that time), requiring a leap from readers. Nevertheless, his presentation of the state of America generally -- including in his descriptions merely of land- and store-scape here, as well as the national obsessions with violence --, both in the fictionalized future and the flashes from the past, feels devastatingly authentic. So also some of his observations both ring true and are very well put:
I should have known that in America all faces change, the actors don their different masks; in the repertory theater that is America nothing is quite as it seems but then again everything is exactly as it seems if we can bear the comprehension.
       The Destruction of the Temple is a dense and somewhat muddled story, but there's enough to it -- and any novel with passages like this is worth a look.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 December 2019

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The Destruction of the Temple: Barry N. Malzberg: Other books by Barry N. Malzberg under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Barry N. Malzberg was born in 1939.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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