So much has been written about coming of age in the wild ’60s, but being a kid in the ’70s was its own freaky trip, too: consciousness indelibly stained by the dual disenchantments of Vietnam and Watergate, by the sense that we were sprouting up in the sour aftermath of something turbulent and colossal. I recall lying in bed as a girl wondering whether I would be abducted like Patty Hearst, silently captivated by the idea of normal American kids transformed into terrorists, all of us tinder ready to ignite. For a moment, those FBI Wanted posters of Hearst beamed a message to the world of a generation tilting out of control. But it turned out to be a false alarm, just a final echo of the ’60s. Soon Hearst reclaimed her birthright as a harmless, aging debutante, darting back into the spotlight only for the occasional wacky cameo in John Waters movies.
Susan Choi’s startlingly good second novel is a fictionalized account of Hearst’s stint as a fugitive. Although the subject matter is potentially sensationalistic, Choi doesn’t play it that way. Instead she takes a hypnotic, winding route through the scorched emotional landscape of 1974. American Woman begins after Hearst’s fictional alter ego, Pauline, has been kidnapped by a band of West Coast revolutionaries, after she has been photographed robbing a bank with them, and just after most of her comrades have been burned alive in a showdown with police. That’s when the remaining members of the cadre—Pauline and two of her former captors, Yvonne and Juan—seek shelter on an East Coast farm, aided by an extended circle of radicals who serve as a kind of underground railroad.
At the end of those tracks is Jenny Shimada, a young Japanese American woman who specializes in invisibility. Wanted for bombing draft offices to protest Vietnam, Jenny has already spent three years in hiding when she agrees to act as a buffer between the cadre and the outside world. She’s not much older than they are, but Jenny feels a huge gap between herself and these “wild near-fledglings”—twitchy 20-year-olds with sawed-off shotguns and half-assed ideological notions. Through Jenny’s eyes, Choi shows us life on the lam: a volatile mix of action and anxiety, bravado and paranoia. Little crazes take hold of the group: “ego reconstruction” sessions, combat training, making guns. Jenny weaves in and out of the trio’s endless power struggles, creeped out by their fuzzy politics and irritated by the simplistic way Juan idealizes her Asian background. Yet Jenny is infatuated by the enigmatic Pauline. Like everyone else in America, she wonders whether the young heiress was brainwashed or sucked in by her kidnappers’ sense of purpose—”Just because she was nineteen years old, and might have fallen in love with any collection of beings devoted to lofty ideals” in an era when all young people “felt called upon vaguely to Do Something.”
American Woman sticks unecessarily close to the facts—one can’t help measuring these characters and events against fractured memories of the past. (Did the Symbionese Liberation Army really demand that the Hearst family provide food to every poor person in California? Did Patty and her comrades lead police to the SLA’s safe house by accidentally leaving a parking ticket in a getaway car? And did a Japanese American chick really act as go-between? Yes, yes, and yes.) This is no stock historical novel, though: Choi fills in the blanks with deeper blanks to evoke this strange, lulling interlude when exuberant idealism crumbled to doubt and regret. And she mostly suppresses the urge to mock Juan and his comrades, though there’s plenty of tragicomic potential in the SLA story—they were the dregs of ’60s radicalism, with a bizarre motto (“Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people”) and a knack for fatal screwups. As real-life SLA member Michael Bortin said upon finally being imprisoned last year, “I feel terrible for all the nonviolent people that were really idealistic and well intentioned in the ’60s. We kind of deflected some bad karma on them.”
Choi’s prose radiates intelligence as she traces circles around Jenny and Pauline—near enough that you can feel their warmth, but not so close that you’d ever nail them down. The intense friendship between these two women rises through the novel’s sophisticated, drifting structure, resulting in a brief Thelma and Louise-style lost weekend, a “half-grasped fever dream” before reality intrudes on their exile and they’re forced to pay their debt to society. But intelligence doesn’t always translate into a coherent political viewpoint. Ideas and open questions are scattered across the novel: How do you know how much your own beliefs are influenced by the times? And what do you do when the zeitgeist passes you by?
After years of waiting for “a confluence of attitudes and events” that would sway the rest of America to her way of thinking, Jenny realizes that things are actually going the other way: The left has contracted rather than expanded. When she comes out of hiding, she discovers that even young radicals have an entirely different view of the world: “Had they been born just a few years sooner,” she notes, they “would have met the world at a sharply different angle, done things with no hesitation that now, in their remarkably altered world, would seem wild, laborious, frightening.” In the end, Jenny resembles the survivor of some lost society, buried by volcanic ash for decades, waiting patiently to be excavated by poetic archaeologists like Susan Choi.
Ed Park’s suggestions for Asian American fictioneers with writer’s block