by Hari Kunzru
It seems like the threat of revolution in the United States is largely passed. We refer to the leftist revolutionaries back in the 1960s. They seemed a real enough threat that the Nixon administration devised an elaborate set of responses. The threat passed with the end of the Vietnam war, the end of the draft, the dissipation that was the 1970s. Today, the existential threat to the United States has taken a different form, a disdain for our founding principles, the elevation of ignorance as some kind of pioneer virtue, a lack of appreciation for the cooperative effort it takes to make a country great and its people healthy and secure. So, maybe a revolution is still necessary. Given the lock our party system has on the government, it still doesn't seem likely. Back in the 1960s, though, many young people worked long and hard to bring down what they saw as a paper tiger. In the USA, such violent revolutionaries as the Weather Underground eventually went underground, turning up decades later to pay their pipers. In Great Britain, there was a parallel movement that went underground as the Irish Republican violence of the 70s increased. Their stories are similar. Today, there are many memoirs of revolutionaries, long reflections on the excesses of youth and the promise of a better world.
This 2007 novel is a fictional account of one such lapsed revolutionary. Michael Frame has carefully crafted his alter-ego over the decades since his revolutionary cell carried out its most dramatically violent and quixotic action. A series of chance (and not-so random) encounters threatens the stability he has found in the London suburbs. He makes a break for it, and heads to France, where he intends to force the issue with one of his fellow rebels. Along the way, there are numerous jumps through time as we learn about Mike's (or Chris's) complex history.
Kunzru draws on many of the events and myths of the violent counterculture. He details some of the issues of those days, going to the determination of the revolutionaries, while also seeing the futility in so many of their actions. He portrays a convincing conversion of our hero from earnest protestor of wars and imperialism into a paranoid revolutionary. The crowd of protestors and laid-back hippies slowly distills itself down to the true-believers and radical purists. This kind of transformation happens often in radical political movements, from the Communists of 1917, to the sixties radicals, to the TEA Party. All have their violent elements, to one degree or another. The break comes when the group goes after that target, that action, that destruction that is one step too far. In this case, Mike can't make that step, and his own response to the threat of violence puts all his closest friends in jeopardy.
Mike seems destined to keep looking for the most effective means of escape. He is haunted by his unfinished business. Through the intrusion of one revolutionary he always doubted, a man who always had an ulterior motive, he is forced to confront the failure of the revolution he tried to foment. He needs to see the people with whom he can most sympathize, those who participated in his history, who carried the same dedication to change. At the same time, he watches as his "new" life, the one he has lived for sixteen years, disintegrates as his history rises to the surface. Kunzru's story is taught, haunted, and full of the confusion we find when our ideals fail us, when our revolutionary verve turns to middle-aged complacency.
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See Also: [Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers]
[Other books of the 1960s and Counterculture]