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.”