Tuesday, March 25, 2008
By Hari Kunzru
Dutton. 280 pp. $25.95
It is 1998 and Michael Frame, the British narrator of Hari Kunzru's powerful third novel, "My Revolutions," is in a spot of trouble. His marriage is foundering, his stepdaughter doesn't understand him, somebody is using him to blackmail a high-ranking member of Parliament, and -- worst of all -- his wife is planning a party for his 50th birthday. Perfectly good reasons to take off in a Beemer and head for the former lover he thinks he spotted in a charming French village. It's the stuff of your basic coming-of-middle-age story, a Richard Russo novel perhaps, or even something by Peter Mayle, except Kunzru is plowing much darker terrain.
In these types of stories, the present and the past are usually neatly weighed one against the other, and Kunzru pulls off the switches between the two with admirable clarity. But Michael Frame's present is strangely insubstantial. He is a mere hanger-on to his wife's life, a "country life, but with plumbing and telecoms and antibiotics." In fact, he is as much a mystery to his family as he is to us. Yet Michael remembers his past with loving, almost obsessive detail, and this dark past is the heart of the novel.
Michael comes of age in the shadow of two wars, the world war fought by the men in his working-class neighborhood, men "who'd all seen and done wartime things yet mysteriously chose to mark physics homework or sell pork chops to my mother," and the Cold War, with its constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Arrested at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration during his freshman year and sentenced to six weeks in a brutal prison, he emerges thinking in purely political terms: "What paper had I signed? Where had I said I wished to regulate my habits and govern my sexual behavior and strive for advancement in various abstract games whose terms had been set before I was born? The state claimed it was an expression of the democratic will of the people. But what if it wasn't?"
"My Revolutions" is filled with such pronouncements, both in its dialogue and in the series of brilliantly concocted manifestos, impassioned and deranged, that run through the story. Each declaration leads chillingly to the next, until the words of Mao come to the fore: "In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun." By 1970 Michael has become a full-fledged member of the revolutionary underground, stealing cars, throwing bombs, living in fear under the assumed name of Michael Frame.
In detailing Michael's story to its bitter yet affecting end, Kunzru is trying to document the history of a host of groups -- from the Weather Underground in the United States to the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany to the Angry Brigade of Britain, the model for this book -- and their step-by-step descent from peace-and-love idealism to base violence. Kunzru takes to this daunting task with such energy and specificity that the novel feels more like a bracing historical record than a work of fiction. Through it all, he walks a delicate line, trying to keep our sympathy for the members of Michael's underground organization even as it succumbs to the terrible logic of the bomb. It's no accident that the book is set before Sept. 11, when such sympathy might still have been possible.
In his first novel, "The Impressionist," Kunzru proved himself an uncommonly gifted writer, in full control of his language, plot and ripe humor. But he chooses here to keep Michael's reminiscences so unrelentingly grim that it feels like he's loading the dice. Michael's group is earnest enough to make your teeth ache, and never has free love seemed less erotic. Even the old girlfriend Michael spies in France, an uber-revolutionary chick and horn of the novel's love triangle, is more frightening than sensual, all sharp angles and angry discipline.
"Pleasure wasn't relevant to the struggle," Michael remembers. "It was only through the struggle that we could materialize ourselves in a meaningful way." Would you like fries with that? It's as if Kunzru is afraid to admit that the Doors ever existed or that a sort of Dionysian ecstasy was often a direct conduit to politics. For all the fun Michael's having, he might as well have been in law school.
But the questions Kunzru raises about politics and violence continue to burn today, just as the fault lines created in the '60s persist in our public life. Is today's left simply a vestigial collection of hippie-revolutionaries intoxicated with drugs, sex and political-sloganeering, treading a path that leads only to nihilism? Is today's right led by a bunch of outsiders who were too timid or uncool to dive into the youth culture of their time, salving old slights by accumulating the power and wealth necessary to reverse everything that culture achieved? And why can't everyone just get over it already?
In jail, Michael meets Miles Bridgeman, who, like many villains, becomes the most intriguing figure in the book. His shoes are a little too posh, his questions a little too pointed. "Miles always jumped on things. He was never content until he'd pinned them down, all the specifics, the whys and wherefores." One can't help but think of the author as he dutifully researched his way into the heart of this story. Miles is a filmmaker, and Michael self-righteously scoffs at his artistic pretensions: "It's going to take more than montage to start the revolution." In response, Miles asks the crucial question about the world Michael hopes to create: "But what would it look like?"
"I saw myself walking down the street smiling," Michael thinks. "I saw a sunny day. Everything I saw looked like an advertisement." Throughout his journey to the revolution and back, Michael is never able to adequately answer Miles's question. Kunzru lets us know it's still out there, waiting.