I have never thought of Susan Sontag as a novelist, regardless of the success of novels like THE VOLCANO LOVER. But she is back, having just been awarded the 2000 National Book Award for her latest book, IN AMERICA. Although the essay is her strong suit, Sontag is clearly winning a lot of fans for her fiction.
In 1876 a culturally and intellectually astute Polish diva named Maryna Zalezowska abandons the stage and establishes a utopian commune in, of all places, California. She is in search of a new self-created persona, and America holds all she needs to make her wish so. Writing that "life cannot be restarted, that we are all prisoners of whatever we have become," she arrives in Anaheim with her husband, child, and fellow utopians in tow, working hard to expurgate her former self. Being an American is totally exotic to her, as being a novelist is to Sontag. The diva meets such American standards as Henry James and enthralls the Golden Land with her strange and enticing nature and ideas.
It is an interesting book from the point of view that it takes a sharply feminist bent on self-invention and the American ideal of being 'who you want to be.' Situating her protagonist amidst the tumult of the early 20th century is a fine idea and gives her plenty of fodder for marking the excesses and joys that come with being an American. Sometimes the best way we can learn about ourselves is through the eyes of someone who isn't a native, who doesn't come with the preconceptions those of us privileged to grow up here have.
Instead, Sontag, in her hodgepodge, slow-to-start way, manages to exact a picture of an America we still know, love and hate, and fight to protect --- IN AMERICA is about our home and its award comes at an inauspicious time in our country's history, as we rediscover the tenets of democracy and what it means to the people for whom it was invented.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on February 1, 2000