Review: Daniel Quinn's After Dachau

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This analysis necessarily discusses some plot and thematic details of the book After Dachau by Daniel Quinn. I have made every attempt to refrain from revealing too much or spoiling the experience of reading the book for the first time, but picky readers be warned.

After reading just the first sentence of After Dachau, I was sure I had identified the major themes, direction, and message-delivering vehicle that Daniel Quinn would use in his new book. This was slightly comforting; I'd read that his latest work was radically different, obtuse, and unrelated to its predecessors. Given that his other books had significantly challenged the way I look at the world, and that I'd become (too) comfortable with that challenge, my initial reaction was my own attempt to tie everything together, to find central, comfortable ideas that I could hold onto, nod and agree with, and make my own.

But that, of course, is not the point. Quite the opposite, actually, and the book is anything but formulaic.

The story told takes quite a few twists and turns, so many, in fact, that one often has to stop and check if a few pages might have been forgotten in that particular printing. Quinn does not disappoint, however, as all mysterious matters are explained at one time or another, but often the book does take on the quality of a pop culture mystery novel. This is part of its appeal, I think, as a fresh approach to Quinn's previous messages. Those who might not have made it through Ishmael and the others cannot now use this as a sole justification to avoid After Dachau -- it is a literary experience unto its own.

Jason Tull is the son of the rich and famous who has devoted his time to studying and investigating reports of reincarnation events. Mallory Hastings experiences a crisis of identity that is triggered by, in this case, an apparent reincarnation event. The two are drawn together thusly, and set out (reluctantly at times) to answer each other's questions about what has transpired.

At various points in the story, we get a glimpse of the styles of interaction from previous Quinn writings: the logical, Socratic, experienced one pushing the impassioned, skeptical, confused one towards an answer that feels impossibly distant and then suddenly clear. But it is clear that Quinn avoided the atmosphere of preaching, intensely focused, extended dialogue, and similar methods - the main characters are always equally vulnerable to mystery, incomplete understanding, and frustration. There is a sense of balance that, ironically, comes from the ongoing reversals of "power" between Jason and Mallory, each one assuming the upper hand of "understanding the big picture" at various points through the story.

One could, I suppose, compare the players of After Dachau to those of previous Quinn writings. Jason Tull takes a journey similar to that of Alan Lomax in Ishmael, Julie Gerchak in My Ishmael, and Jared Osborne in The Story of B. Mallory Hastings mirrors some qualities of Shirin in The Story of B as well. But the differences are significant enough (even without Jason and Mallory) that one cannot easily lump them all in together as self-contained bearers of Quinn's message. This is significant to his purpose of representing that message through the eyes of a largely varied group of characters, in a manner that appeals to an equally varied readership.

Identifying the messages in this particular book would, it seems, depend largely on one's level of existing experience with the ideas from previous Quinn novels (even if one hadn't read those novels). There are several themes that are more or less apparent depending on this variable:

  • the frog in the pot of water, dying slowly but comfortably as the water warms over time.
  • the modern version of human culture as a self-destructive, inherently oppressive force
  • the illusion of control that so many so heavily depend on, however unconsciously
  • the important enlightenment that comes with dissolving that illusion
  • the dangerous power of self-perpetuating myths
  • the clarity and strength that can come from deep consideration of basic premises
  • the compatibility and necessity of multiple perspectives ("there is no one right way to live")

If one were unfamiliar with "the teachings of Ishmael", one might come away from After Dachau with a sense that the central focus leans more towards identifying the illusions of identity and control, removing them, and acting on the enlightenment (or other experience) that follows. This is not a bad thing - Quinn has certainly succeeded in creating a new, subtle "entry point" to the discussions and ideas that were so explicitly presented previously. And it really is an entry point - I think that one could potentially have a smoother transition into the "so let me tell you about this thing called Mother Culture" conversation with a friend who has understood After Dachau than with the same friend who had not.

On the other hand, if one were an avid follower of "the teachings of Ishmael", the book might present itself as having three different focuses: an affirmation of the notion that we all have some "waking up" to do; an insight into the power of the myths we are taught to accept unconditionally; an inspiration for action on any level possible. These purposes might be subtler than many Quinn fans would desire - there are few long, drawn out explorations of an idea that culminates in newfound, radical discovery - but affirmation, insight, and inspiration can be as equally important as information and advice.

Quinn recently wrote on his website that a primary intent of all his books is to "shine a light on the secret nobody wants to hear." In typical Quinn style, the nature of that secret is never explicitly defined or stated. But, it is perhaps the process of shining the light that Quinn enjoys and excels at most. After Dachau succeeds as the Quinn book that relishes that process most deeply.

3 thoughts on “Review: Daniel Quinn's After Dachau

  1. Think for your selves. He is a writer whom some consider good, and others say nay.
    I have read too many opinions that suggest he is some sort of god. It is just a book that validates his opinions-why do they have to be yours? THINK FOR YOUR SELF.
    And YES-I read his THOUGHTS....Make your own......Don't be part of a herd....

  2. thought so- if a person doesnt agree with your opinion they are wrong. How shallow and hallow you must be not to talk and share ALL opinions by everyone. That is how we grow and share-

  3. Jay: I'm not quite sure who you are addressing with your comments, but I don't think anyone would disagree with you that readers of Mr. Quinn's work should still think critically for themselves and form their own conclusions.

    Thanks for posting!

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