With each last reverberation from the world of 1960s and '70s radicalism--the recent parole of Kathy Boudin, for example, a member of the Weather Underground who served twenty-two years in prison for her part in the murder of three people in 1981--the mindset of that era seems more remote.
Our cultural distance from it is especially striking now, engaged as we are in another open-ended war that is viscerally unpopular among the chattering classes. Yet the convulsion of rage and excitement and purpose that gripped American and European youth in the late 1960s and early '70s is nowhere to be found today. And the violent acts that a very small portion of that youth committed seem more incomprehensible now than ever before.
Susan Choi's beautiful and disturbing second novel, American Woman, set in 1974, not only takes place among that violent cohort but includes in its cast of characters the underground's most famous denizen, Patty Hearst. While Hearst is never mentioned in the book by name--not even in the acknowledgments--Choi's research clearly included Every Secret Thing, Hearst's account of her 1974 kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army and all that followed.
The protagonist of American Woman is a relatively minor player in the Hearst drama: Wendy Yoshimura (Choi calls her Jenny Shimada), the onetime lover and accomplice of Willie Brandt (here called William Weeks), a Berkeley student who bombed buildings and was arrested and jailed in 1972. Yoshimura, who went underground to escape arrest, took part in what was later known as the "lost year" in the Patty Hearst saga--the period of time between Hearst's escape with Bill and Emily Harris from the firestorm that destroyed the SLA in 1974, and their arrest in 1975. American Woman is Choi's reimagining of that year, from Jenny's perspective. Though it places the reader smack in the churn of events, its tone is calmly reflective, as if Choi were holding a curious object up to the light and turning it slowly. Her inquiry extends well beyond the obvious question of how seemingly "normal" people could have been sucked into the outlaw life. Or rather, in the course of trying to answer that question, she renders a lucid study of the gravitational pull of race and class in America, its ability to crush the most naïvely passionate fantasies of unity.
In a somewhat jumbled start, the novel opens with Rob Frazer, a sports pundit and underground impresario (based on the real-life character of Jack Scott), combing the area around Rhinebeck, New York, in search of Jenny, who has been underground for two years. Frazer has managed to smuggle the three remaining members of the SLA--a couple called Juan and Yvonne (Bill and Emily Harris) and their former captive, Pauline (Tania, née Patty Hearst)--to the East Coast, where he plans to lodge them in a rented farmhouse so they can transcribe their adventures for a book. He wants Jenny to babysit the fugitives in return for a cut of the book's proceeds. Jenny refuses in horror--worn down by underground life, she's considered turning herself in--but for reasons that aren't clear, in a scene we don't witness, Jenny changes her mind and signs on.
It's the first of several baffling decisions Jenny makes in the course of the book; Choi is fascinated by ways pivotal change comes about inadvertently--through misunderstanding or inattention or sheer inertia. Describing the first bomb she brought inside a building, Jenny muses, "What did it mean when people said, 'I've decided...?' Did anyone ever truly decide? A brand-new white purse set in place, her quick footsteps away; that had been a decision. And yet she couldn't recall when and where she'd decided to do that." While Jenny undertakes the trying task of managing the fugitives, we learn that her father, the son of Japanese immigrants, was interned during World War II--an experience that so alienated him from America he later immigrated with Jenny (whose mother had died) to Japan, only to find himself equally alienated there. The two returned to America after five years, when Jenny was 14. Choi's depictions of Jim Shimada, a solitary gardener, are softly devastating. Recalling Jenny's childhood home, she writes:
There was a sideline in appliance repair; half-deconstructed mechanisms would be gathering dust on the tables, on old sheets of newspaper. Her father's indifferent bookkeeping would have strewn sales slips everywhere. In the huge handmade urn near the door was their massive jade plant, like some vegetal form of an elephant, all winding coarse trunks and great rubbery ears; the dim light would reflect off the leaves. They never dusted or vacuumed or swept, but her father did wipe every leaf of that tree with a damp cotton cloth once a week.