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.
While it’s clear that Jenny’s rage at the American government on her father’s behalf is the deep engine of her radicalism, the catalyst for her involvement was a man, William Weeks, of whom her father disapproved and whom she ended up choosing in his stead. “William became her world,” Choi writes, “his language her language. She remembered thinking to herself, and sometimes even daring to utter aloud that They Had Become Lovers. And she remembered the joy she’d felt being propelled, by a manner of speech she would never have used, toward a life she had never imagined.” Father and daughter haven’t spoken in years, and the paradox of their estrangement forms the book’s emotional core.
Jenny, with her Asian face, has instant credibility among the radicals, and Choi’s rendering of the kneejerk racial pieties of that world may be her most trenchant contribution to the literature of the counterculture. When the first bomb Jenny plants explodes, “William sees her quaking…and kneels quickly before her, grabs her hands…as if she is a child. ‘Think of that being dropped onto people,’ he hisses. ‘Balls of fire dropped down onto children. Little children who look just like you.'” To the radical left, Jenny is a symbol of everything worth fighting for. And the very nature of her symbolism brings her into conflict with Pauline, whose symbolism is the inversion of her own. “She knows how important she is,” Juan says to Jenny of the heiress. “The Publicity Princess. But she’s still got to learn that there’s no substitute for a Third World perspective like yours. Brown, yellow, black, red: those are four things that she’ll never be. And she isn’t just white, she’s a filthy rich white…she can’t kill what she is. She can only atone.”
As women chafing against their symbolic freight and growing weary of the overbearing males who are as plentiful inside the radical movement as outside it, Jenny and Pauline have much in common. In time they figure this out. After Juan and Yolanda’s plan for a bloodless robbery goes brutally awry, Jenny escapes with Pauline and the two make a lengthy drive back to San Francisco. This exodus is Choi’s real flight of fancy: the part of the story with no apparent basis in reality, and the occasion for some of her strongest writing. In describing the boundary-less intimacy between the two women, Choi brings us closest to the sensory experience of underground life, or, as she puts it, “dropping into a rabbits’ warren of the imagination where reinvention of the self was possible.” In a world without rules, the daughter of a man jailed for his Japanese blood can merge, in some sense, with the daughter of the man whose newspapers championed internment camps. Choi beautifully evokes the eroticism inherent in this liminal existence. “Prior history all seems unreal,” she writes. Jenny and Pauline “don’t remember that they are two girls, fabulous prey, on the run from the law everywhere. In this sticky cocoon it’s surprising, perhaps, that they never make love to each other.” Pauline, we learn, has had sex with women in the years since her kidnapping. “She’s done it, at the outset always more obediently than with desire, then abruptly overshooting desire for something narcotic and unprecedented. Yet now it is barely remembered; it is the way, though they don’t realize yet, this time also will be.”
In dishing up the swoony blend of violence, sexuality and self-creation that coalesces in underground life, Choi’s narrative achieves an immediacy that it sometimes lacks when her stance is more analytical. For all the pages we spend inside Jenny’s head, she often comes across as someone viewed from a distance. For example, several times during her tenure in the farmhouse we’re told that she’s reading, but never what she reads. (Hearst gives us more on that front; in Every Secret Thing, Yoshimura is caught reading a book on French separatism in Quebec, for which Bill Harris “lambasted her unmercifully for wasting her time on such a bourgeois irrelevant subject.”) And Jenny speaks to her fellow fugitives with such unfailing reasonableness–always demurring, for example, when she is lauded for being Asian, apparently never for even one second buying into the notion of her specialness–that it can be hard to imagine her taking the actions she does, despite her persuasive psychology. I longed for the unreason of Jenny’s actions to infect her thoughts and words–it would have allowed me to experience her plight in a more urgent way.
Of course, the very nature of liminal states is that they must end, and the normal rules of life reassert themselves. For Jenny and Pauline, that end comes in the form of their arrest inside their shared apartment, at which point they are separated forever. Jenny is crushed to discover that despite their promises to shield each other from blame, Pauline betrays her instantly. Later, Jenny comes to see that this betrayal was as inevitable as her allegiance to the heiress was unlikely. “Pauline had realized her adventure was over,” Choi writes. “Pauline knew that her place in the world was assured–she need only resolve to accept it. And she had, out of fear, or resignation, or hard pragmatism, or perhaps just because, for them both, youth had come to an end.” The decision wasn’t really a decision, in other words, so much as a relaxation into the grip of forces–race, class, history–that are hard to transcend for very long, much less destroy.
Jenny, too, has a place in the world: She is her father’s daughter. Choi doesn’t show us the reunion between them, and her restraint is both what keeps American Woman from ever listing into sappiness or cliché, and what maintains an emotional distance between reader and story. But Jenny and her father find each other again, and the book’s last scene–their visit to a reunion at the camp where Jim Shimada was interned–is just right.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering, as I read American Woman, what Wendy Yoshimura would think of it. Patty Hearst is a public figure, a period icon who by now must be accustomed to the fact that she pops up in the dream lives of a certain generation of Americans. But Yoshimura, a California painter, has kept a low profile all these years. She has never written a book about her experiences. Should she ever decide to, she’ll find herself up against a work of real achievement that is built around the facts of her early life. Choi’s reflective voice has its price: This is not a novel that subsumes the reader in a whirligig of emotion and suspense, though at times I wished it would. But it is deeply impressive: confident, historically astute, psychologically persuasive. By its end I had come to believe this pithy remark of Frazer’s that jumped at me in its opening pages: “The most shocking act, closely examined, is just a louder version of some habitual gesture.”