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Radical fantasy, SLA-style

American Woman A Novel Susan Choi HarperCollins: 370 pp., $24.95

September 14, 2003|Jay Cantor | Jay Cantor is the author of the novel "Great Neck," among other works.

Politics beckons the artist. The world's vexed histories have a ready-made appeal for readers -- rooting interests, partisan interests, plenty of chances to satisfy the lust for moral outrage. And without our help, we think history isn't good enough. We all need the actors' motives revealed at a level only the imagination can reach. We need to know the fantasies that made reality.

Politics, though, can be a fatal attraction for an artist. In a work of literature, Stendhal famously said, politics is "like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert ... loud and vulgar, and yet a thing it is not possible to ignore." Politics, that is to say, can wreck the texture of imaginative work. Susan Choi here bases her novel on the remnants of the Symbionese Liberation Army -- characters guaranteed to arouse partisanship, contempt or moral opprobrium, all of which would ruin the novel's music. But Choi handles that difficulty with an amazing sense of control.

She begins her story obliquely. A police shootout has already destroyed most of the SLA, leaving only a few shards, including their box-office star, the kidnapped upper-class ingenue who converted to their cause. The SLA is unnamed here, but it is the SLA, and the character called "Pauline" is, of course, Patricia Hearst, more or less. I know Patricia Hearst only through People magazine, so she has always seemed just "more or less" a Patricia Hearst to me, to begin with. And the SLA was always a creature of our imagination too. A series of evanescent bloody fantasies, the SLA was mostly what the media and the audience's savage dreams made of it -- except, that is, for its very real bullets.

As the novel begins, Frazer, a bald left-wing hustler, sniffs the crowd-pleasing opportunity in the SLA story. He wants to broker a book by these jamokes, make a buck and "get their message out." So he transports the two surviving loons and Pauline to a farmhouse in upstate New York and finds a minder for them, the character who will become the center of the novel -- here called Jenny Shimada and apparently based on a minor player in the SLA story, Wendy Yoshimura. For her own reasons, Jenny has been hiding upstate, doing restoration work on the estate of a rich and racist harridan. Choi gives a compelling sense of focus to Jenny's work -- and to all the novel's physical settings, Jenny being more taken up with the details of the world than with the people in it. The harridan, for example, is, like much of the supporting cast, a caricature. But perhaps that's always our revenge on the rich; we reduce them to mannerisms and save the inner life for the Proustian hero. Or Jenny.

Jenny has a past. She's hiding because she and her boyfriend bombed domestic targets during the Vietnam War, leaving him in prison and her on the lam. Jenny planted bombs -- or so she tell us -- despite hating violence. She just wanted to wake the country up; if someone like her did such things to stop the war, then everyone would realize that war was a very bad thing. Jenny, clearly, is attached to her moral superiority. My own memory of the '60s is that the people around Jenny would have tested her rectitude more, hectoring her with a barrage of repetitive -- and vulgar -- arguments. They would have called her an "adventurist" or pointed out that politics is not the place to play out one's moral dramas. Or they would have admired her all too hysterically, for reasons that might have troubled her more than the critiques, loving the violence that they hoped would provoke more violence. But the novel -- for its own aesthetic reasons -- tones this din down and so leaves Jenny protected from self-examination. For a while, anyway.

Similarly, the reader wonders, more than Jenny does for most of the novel, why someone like Jenny -- calm and thinking herself moral -- would be attracted to the SLA, a group whose first political act was the viciously idiotic assassination of a black school official. Why would she be fascinated with the Patty Hearst character instead of simply being appalled by her kidnapping? Again, there are novelistic reasons for Jenny's blindness to her own motives; it will allow her to attain an artistically satisfying understanding at the end.

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