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My Revolutions A Novel; Hari Kunzru; Dutton: 280 pp., $25.95

January 27, 2008|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

Early in Hari Kunzru's third novel, "My Revolutions," there's a scene that highlights its edgy clarity. It's 1968, and Kunzru's protagonist, a young radical named Chris Carver, has just been arrested after an antiwar rally in London turns violent. In his jail cell, he meets another protester, self-proclaimed revolutionary filmmaker Miles Bridgeman, who asks about the world Chris means to build.

"[W]hat kind of future will it be?" Miles wonders. "What exactly? . . . Picture it in your head. What's different? How does it work? How do they do things? What do you see?" Frustrated, Chris can summon up only the image of "walking down the street smiling," as if the future were a kind of ad. "I was angry with myself," he admits. "Was that really all I could imagine? Not even to have a picture of freedom. How abject. How bleak."

It's precisely this tension -- between the romance of insurrection and the elusive goal of a new order; between the anger of the young, the disillusioned and the entrenched structures of society -- that is the underlying theme of "My Revolutions," which opens 30 years after Chris' jailhouse revelation in an England where "the old town-center tradesmen have gone out of business, butchers and ironmongers and family-run tea rooms edged out by branches of Starbucks and Pizza Hut." Chris now lives quietly under the name Mike Frame, with a common-law wife and an adopted daughter who know nothing of his history; he's been hiding in plain sight since the early 1970s, when the radical group with which he was affiliated embarked on a virulent bombing campaign.

How, Kunzru wants us to consider, does idealism lead to violence, and then to a passivity that nullifies them both? In recent years, similar questions have motivated a host of novels, including Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance" and Susan Choi's "American Woman," both of which re-imagine the strange saga of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Dana Spiotta's "Eat the Document," which also traces the after story of a 1960s radical gone underground.

But if "My Revolutions" has much in common with these efforts, it's a more inward-looking book. Beginning at the very moment when a much older Miles blows Chris' (or Mike's) cover, this is a novel about identity as much as politics, built around the notion that our most cherished beliefs, hopes, desires, even memories, are little more than constructs in the end. "All things are transitory," Chris reflects. "All things must pass. Attachments, whether to material possessions, to people, to places or a name, are futile. Despite your clinging, these things will fade away."

At its heart, "My Revolutions" is an inquiry into the metaphysics of rebellion, a novel that frames radicalism as a spiritual path. "You can't hate the world's imperfection so fiercely, so absolutely, without getting drawn toward death," Kunzru suggests. "Beyond a certain point it becomes the only possibility." He's writing here about Anna Addison, the now-dead revolutionary who once inflamed Chris' heart, but the statement resonates across the book. Shifting back and forth in time between Chris/Mike's flight from exposure and his relentless explication of his history, "My Revolutions" dissects the pure white heat of extremism and the way it often leads less to liberation than to a self-imposed servitude.

Certainly, this is what happens to Chris, who starts out protesting atomic weapons, only to slip into radicalism after he meets Anna and her on-again-off-again lover Sean Ward. Together, they form a group devoted to a rigid, if amorphous, revolutionary practice based equally on Marxist theory and middle-class guilt. "We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war," Sean is fond of saying, quoting Chairman Mao. "But war can only be abolished through war and in order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun." Still, in the early days, their actions have a more practical effect. At one point, they break into a supermarket, liberating "chicken after chicken . . . sacks of potatoes, jars of coffee, whole pallets of canned vegetables" to distribute to the poor. "We formed a human chain to get the stuff upstairs," Chris recalls, "and by the time it was properly light, people across the area were waking up to find several days' of groceries on their doorstep. In each box was a slip of paper:

"After the revolution there will be enough for all."

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