Hari Kunzru’s third novel, My Revolutions, opens with a sly sendup of boomer bliss. Michael Frame, ensconced in a country cottage in Sussex with patchwork cushions on the chairs and a BMW in the garage, is approaching his fiftieth birthday. He doesn’t care to celebrate, but his partner, Miranda, insists on a lavish catered event. Michael, who narrates the scene in understated monotone, feels as if it’s lifted from “one of those early-evening dramas where well-heeled suburbanites experience a little formulaic frisson.” It’s a show he’d prefer to skip. Trouble is, he can’t change the channel.
How far they’ve come since the ’60s. Miranda, a former flower girl turned entrepreneur, used to chef up homemade shampoo on the stove; now she owns a mass-produced line of organic beauty products called Bountessence. “In the last few years everyone around us has become very excited by money,” Michael explains, and Miranda’s ambition “has led her to it, like an ant following a pheromone trail.” Michael is no stranger to compromise, either. Though he spent his late teens canvassing neighbors about the horrors of nuclear war and later dropped out of the London School of Economics to protest the British involvement in Vietnam, now he bides his time leafing through dusty volumes in the antiquarian bookshop where he works. His most vocal campaign amounts to offhand swipes at the “golf-club Fascists” in Miranda’s professional circle.
Michael rationalizes his disengagement as a sign of the times. “Unless you’re in Bosnia, the most pressing issue of the nineties appears to be interior design,” he admits in a typically sardonic aside. But he’s got a better, secret reason for lying low: he can’t afford to take a public stance on anything for fear of being discovered as Chris Carver, a former member of the revolutionary August 14th Group who is wanted for a spate of Vietnam-era bombings around London. All those years in hiding have “hollowed out” his sense of self. But he can’t, or won’t, reclaim it. The thought of coming clean to Miranda–not to mention facing the possibility of prison time–fills him with dread. He’s trapped in the unending performance of bourgeois complacency, precisely the condition he revolted against so violently as a young man.
From this ironic conceit Kunzru builds a tense, propulsive narrative in which Chris is dredged up after half a lifetime underground. His long-deferred reckoning comes by way of Miles Bridgeman, an old friend who tracks him down in his suburban redoubt. Miles, too, has long since traded in his ideals–although his may have been salable all along. From the moment they met–in a holding cell following the 1968 riot at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square–Miles had struck Chris as too polished and suspiciously inquisitive. The police had beaten Chris purple and frog-marched him to jail. Miles, a self-proclaimed Debordian filmmaker, struts into the cell, his expensive boots barely scuffed. He cocks a half-smile and immediately sets on Chris, presuming collusion and sniffing out his affiliations. “To my surprise, he reached forward and touched my bruised cheek with his fingers,” Chris remembers. When Miles resurfaces decades later with his selfsame “predatory grin,” it’s because he can make political hay from outing his former cellmate. Cornering Chris, Miles demands that he come forward and declare his responsibility for the 1971 bombing of the Post Office Tower, a London landmark, and announce that Pat Ellis, a liberal government minister running for Home Secretary, took part in the planning. Ellis had no foreknowledge of the attack, but the news of her distant, long-forgotten association with the August 14th Group would be injurious to her campaign–and beneficial to Miles’s client, a rival candidate. “It’s just politics, Chris,” Miles explains. “Real, grown-up politics, not the kind that starts by carving out a Utopia and then hammering at the world, trying to make it fit.”
Looking back, Chris can’t recall why he confided in Miles so readily. The reader, too, strains to suspend disbelief: why would Chris, who at the time was immersed in a paranoid milieu and subjected to rigorous bouts of criticism/self-criticism from even his closest comrades, hand his secrets to a man he didn’t trust? Miles may be a fully fleshed character with plausible tics and motivations, but his role in the plot is noticeably utilitarian. That he has such a pivotal role underscores that Kunzru is less concerned with extending Modernist investigations of consciousness than with reinventing the nineteenth-century machines that conveyed protagonists through grinding moral dilemmas. In a story in which an aging ’60s radical finally comes to terms with the folly of his youthful crusade, who better than a pragmatic incrementalist to play the foil?
The son of an English mother and an Indian father, Kunzru, 39, was raised in the London suburbs and educated at Oxford University. His debut novel, The Impressionist (2002), a postmodern mash-up of Kipling and Conrad, earned heaps of critical praise and put him in the company of an emerging Brat Pack of postcolonial writers including Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy. The book traces the education of Pran Nath, bastard son of a British officer and a high-caste Indian woman, who is disowned after word spreads that he is not the true heir to his father’s fortune. Pran Nath’s wanderings take him to Bombay, where he is “hired” as an errand boy by a British pedophile and later adopted by missionaries, and on to the motherland, where he assumes the identity of a white anthropology student named Jonathan Bridgeman (Miles’s great-uncle?). Like Chris Carver, Pran Nath is a hollowed-out soul who reinvents himself to survive; he is a sort of cipher who adopts a new persona at every turn in this picaresque novel. The story thus becomes a kabuki about racial performance, an extended parable with a dark heart at its core. In the final section, Jonathan rides upriver in Africa with a team of ethnographers, taking notes on a little-known indigenous tribe. The onetime subject of the British Empire, now properly “civilized,” is helping to colonize a savage land.
Kunzru made a splash when papers reported that he had received a $1.5 million advance for The Impressionist, and he made a bigger splash when he turned down the £5,000 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, sponsored by the conservative Mail on Sunday and awarded to the year’s best work of literature by a British or Commonwealth author under 35. The rejection wasn’t merely a publicity stunt. Rather, it was an early signal that, for all the pomp and commercialism surrounding his debut, Kunzru takes his writing, and his ideas about corruption, seriously. Pran Nath may have been content to rub elbows with colonial overlords, but Kunzru wasn’t willing to accept cash from a paper whose racial politics he considers odious. “Along with its sister paper the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday has consistently pursued an editorial policy of vilifying and demonizing refugees and asylum-seekers,” Kunzru wrote in a statement explaining his refusal. “The atmosphere of prejudice it fosters translates into violence and I have no wish to profit from it.”
His follow-up, the Internet-era Transmission (2004), introduced another relatively unformed Easterner to the jaded confines of the West: geeky Indian programmer Arjun Mehta comes to Silicon Valley, where he lands a gig and meets a cyberpunk who falls for his fresh-off-the-boat cuteness. Soon after he gets laid, though, he gets laid off. And in a frantic bid to win back his job and his girlfriend, he launches a computer virus on the office server, hoping to swoop in and save the day with a quick fix. Instead, the virus rapidly infects the global economy.
The bug wreaks havoc on Guy Swift, the swollen head of a start-up called Tomorrow, who’s working on a make-or-break account. Coked up at a posh restaurant in Brussels, stranded and frantic without his files thanks to Arjun’s bumbling, Guy pitches his prospective clients on a hokey project to rebrand the entire continent. “We have to promote Europe as somewhere you want to go, but somewhere that’s not for everyone,” he chirps. “A continent that wants people, but only the best…. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Club Europa–the world’s VIP room.” Kunzru, who worked at Wired UK during the dot-com bonanza, clearly had the inside line on the messianic delusions of the new economy; his depiction of Guy in free-fall is deliciously cruel. But the cruelty he aims at hapless Arjun isn’t so funny. As soon as Arjun is identified as the perpetrator, he is portrayed in news reports as an international terrorist, possibly a Muslim fundamentalist. Friendless and on the lam, he worries that if caught, he will wind up “joining the ranks of the disappeared, the kneeling figures in the orange suits against whom anything was justified.” Arjun eludes capture and, in the end, gets the girl; Transmission is a farce, after all. But the book’s animating joke–that this apparent jihadist is actually a gangly nerd who thinks his life should follow a Bollywood fantasy–landed on the shelves in the immediate wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal like a high-minded slap in the face.
My Revolutions is something of a farce too–its plot hinges on a terrorist facing down a midlife crisis–but it’s also Kunzru’s least showy and most mature novel to date. His humane portrayal of Chris Carver–who is, of course, far savvier than Arjun and less malleable than Pran Nath–further subverts popular, paper-thin portrayals of terrorists as foreign and unknowable and mad, and allows Kunzru to probe deeper into the contradictions of identity (fixed yet protean), ideals (corrupting and corruptible) and empire (vulnerable yet resilient). Kunzru’s exploration of the impulses that pushed various factions of the Vietnam generation toward spectacular violence is insightful and unsentimental, and guided by puzzlement and fascination. What compelled a group of young, well-educated radicals to violate the boundary separating civil disobedience and renegade action? What made them think they constituted a revolutionary vanguard, and how did they cope when it became clear that no one had followed them across the line? These are good questions for a novelist to ask. And as recent titles like Neil Gordon’s The Company You Keep (2003) and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006) have shown, there is high drama to be found in them. My Revolutions, inspired in part by the exploits of the Angry Brigade–a British libertarian socialist network that carried out a campaign of property bombings in the early 1970s–joins this small shelf as a worthy transatlantic counterpart. The premise is perhaps too readily summed up as a précis for a Hollywood script, as even Michael Frame would agree. But the tidy structure plays to Kunzru’s strengths as a social satirist and opens the space for a riveting dramatization of political blowback.
What is most captivating about this novel, though, is not the suspense that comes from watching the clock run out on Michael Frame in the late ’90s but Kunzru’s impassioned account of the London underground scene at the height of anti-Vietnam fervor. An agile writer with a cinematic approach to plot, Kunzru expertly sews a series of flashbacks into Michael’s present-tense predicament, casting back to a heady time when taking one’s dreams for reality was equal parts child’s play and bullhorn command. Floral skirts and dirty bare feet, acid trips and communiqués laced with Marxist rhetoric, casual sex in communal squats, rooftop teach-ins featuring heroic dispatches from the Paris riots, a procession of increasingly confrontational run-ins with the state: all the trappings are there, familiar yet fresh. A lesser writer working with such material could easily wind up with a patchwork of New Left clichés and mushy psychedelia–an earnest Austin Powers. But Kunzru pulls it off. In My Revolutions the feeling of urgency and disorientation, the sense that another world is not only possible but in the offing, is at once alluring and toxic.
Much like Anna Addison, the elusive object of Chris’s affection. Despite his devotion to the revolutionary cause, Chris is privately ambivalent about the efficacy of agitating for change. Anna has no such doubts, a quality Chris finds compelling and admirable. Here are his thoughts upon seeing her for the first time, at the 1968 march on the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square:
There was something both reckless and self-possessed about her, about her loping run, the clean overarm action she used to throw the stone; as I watched it arc through the sky, I felt both aroused and ashamed, aroused by the casual beauty of her act and ashamed of myself, for so far that afternoon all I’d done was push and shove and jog around confusedly, trying not to get arrested. She had the clarity I lacked. It had become a fight, so she was fighting back.
As he gets to know her, Chris’s attraction to Anna commingles with his desire to coax his militant ideas into action. “Going all the way” takes on a rather different meaning in this context. Thus when Chris runs into Anna at a swanky party, their chitchat escalates toward antibourgeois bile and crackles with sexual tension. “Look at them, Chris,” she says. “They’re blind. They’re happy to ignore everything around them, just pleased to be having a good time. And, as far as I’m concerned, that makes them culpable. It makes them complicit in everything they’re ignoring.” Soon Anna and Chris are shoving guests and shattering glasses of wine. Moments later, perspiring on a subway platform, they’re making out.
Such is their courtship dance: Anna leads, and Chris follows half a step behind. When Chris tags as “adventurist” a plan to loot a grocery store and redistribute staples to the poor, Anna derides him as a theorist (ouch!). “She’d hit on my weak spot, my secret fear,” Chris remembers. “I don’t really know if Anna convinced me or just wore me down, but a few days later I found myself climbing into the back of Sean’s van.” Soon Chris is the one fashioning bombs and warning others in the gang against “fetishizing nonviolence,” sure of the purity of his motives. Mao’s chestnut “In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun” becomes a mantra for him, and when Anna links up with a shadowy international network (one part PFLP, one part Baader-Meinhof) that’s venturing into assassinations, against his better judgment, Chris hops on board too.
The story of radicalization can be told as a coming-of-age or as a fall from grace, depending on the author’s sensibility. Philip Roth famously chose the latter in American Pastoral, a devastating reflection on the ’60s in which an all-American father must cope with the fallout after his daughter goes on a Weatherman-like spree that leaves four bodies in its wake. Roth, primarily concerned with Swede Levov’s descent into the “American berserk,” heightened the tragedy by portraying the Swede as a middle-class paragon and his daughter, Merry, as a grotesque monster. With the symbolic stakes raised to such a level, Roth’s indelible depiction of Merry’s pathology becomes an indictment of a culture. Roth doesn’t grant Merry a tortured conscience; he merely drops her down in a putrid Newark hovel, further deranged. Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document–whose plot is quite similar to that of My Revolutions, though with a sustained focus on the parallels between anti-Vietnam insurrection and the antiglobalization wave of the late ’90s–features a much more sympathetic woman on the run. Like Kunzru’s Chris, Spiotta’s Mary follows a lover past the brink and then flees to escape prison; and like Chris’s journey toward midlife, hers is filled with guilt and regret and stoic resolve, with brief eruptions of joy. After they cross the line, Chris and Mary must leave everything behind, including the heedlessness and callous certainty of youth.
If My Revolutions is a politically charged Bildungsroman, it is also, I think, an implicit call for solidarity. Kunzru has dedicated the book “to all at 34,” a reference to the tenants and storekeepers in Hackney, the East End neighborhood where the author lives. In December 2005, after the local council decided unilaterally to sell much of Hackney’s commercial property to developers, residents moved into Francesca’s, at No. 34 Broadway Market, which had been slated for demolition. Kunzru, who joined the campaign against the district’s forced gentrification, covered the standoff in a series of unabashedly engaged dispatches for the Guardian. As protests go, this one wasn’t exactly earth-moving. But perhaps that’s the point. The people who faced down the battering rams at 34 stood together to the end, and they didn’t batter back. That is a small lesson, but it applies on a global scale.