The French Really Like Us

American Vertigo expands upon Tocquevilles territory

And it's certainly not all familiar: Lévy many times rides a perception till it swells, phrase by phrase, into a sublime idea, as he does when he contemplates the Kennedy assassination. In the indelible image of the Zapruder tape, he writes, "in this live death, we are given to witness over and over again without ever tiring of it; in this proximity of suffering and love; in this nexus of power and misfortune, fall and redemption; in this story of youth struck down; in this true story of a glamorous and cursed family, blessed by the gods and pursued by a fate perceived as both inconceivable and necessary, [we recognize] the eternal form of Tragedy—'terror and pity,' Aristotle said—that is played out and makes us tremble." In the end, America itself makes Lévy tremble, this nation whose wrestling with its identity gives itself (and the rest of the world) vertigo, this country in a state of "perpetual construction," this "magnificent illusion" that is "nothing else, when all is said and done, but a prodigious yet mundane machine whose purpose is to produce more Americans"—a fat but perpetually hungry people who, as Percy Shelley once wrote (about romantics like himself, though it applies to us too), "Hope till hope creates/Out of its wreck the thing it contemplates."

AMERICAN VERTIGO BY BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY; RANDOM HOUSE. HARDBACK, 320 Pages, $24.95.

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