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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The Nobility of Failure
Based in part on the life of the renowned Polish actress Maryna Zalewska, Susan Sontag's long-awaited new novel, In America, is the story of one woman's search for self-transformation, the fate of idealism, and the old and new worlds on the cusp of modernity. A talent rivaling France's Sarah Bernhardt and America's Edwin Booth, Zalewska leaves the Polish stage at the height of her career to found a commune in the arid vineyards of southern California in 1876. Funded by her aristocratic husband and joined by a cast of admirers, including her young son and a promising young writer who is hopelessly in love with her, Maryna looks to the new world for a different and, she hopes, final role. As a self-sufficient woman of what her fellow immigrants call "Hamerica," Maryna hopes to shed her former self and immerse herself in toil and the harsh beauty of an alien land. Or so she tries to believe in page after page of letters home, diary entries, and interior monologues that place the reader firmly in Sontag country. Just as Sontag's previous historical tour de force, The Volcano Lover, threaded its illicit romance through high-minded ruminations on revolution and art collecting, In America takes issues of representation, or as Maryna labels acting, "misrepresentation," as its central concern.
In America, after all, immigrants are free to represent themselves however they like. They may abandon for good "their dark Polish woes." Theymayeven choose to not represent themselves at all. That is the real drive behind Maryna's exile: a desire to live without affectation. Among her fellow commune companions, the fusty, miserable Julian fantasizes about an immersion in America so complete none may ever find him again. The journalist and aspiring fiction writer, Ryszard, believes that America will provide the stories he was born to write. Having promised Maryna never to write about her, he turns his eye to the commune's setting near the town of Anaheim. Inspiration first strikes when a traveling circus's strongman apparently murders the stage manager and absconds with the flying trapeze lady. In Ryszard's version, the two are young lovers, and escape brings them safety. In California's version, however, the two are pursued vigilante-style, and the strongman strung on a tree and hanged.
The difference in these two endings is emblematic of Sontag's theme. The America of the novel offers immigrants a chance for happy endings and a release from class hierarchy. Like other recent utopian experiments, a German cooperative and the nearby religious sect known as "Edenica," Maryna and her band are left alone. Yet isolation and freedom are not tantamount in this layered look at the United States on the cusp of modernity. Socially, America marks people as surely as it brands cattle. For everyone from Mexicans and Native Americans to Asian coolies and even many Eastern Europeans, history dictates endings. As Maryna's dutiful husband, Bogdan, records, "Last week, near Temescal, an Indian laborer entered the privy while it was being used by the rancher's wife and, she claimed, tried to assault her.... The poor fellow was tied up and castrated by the irate husband on the spot.... It seems vile to think, We didn't have to hear this horrifying story." In the repetition of similar tales and in Ryszard's accounts of his vagabond journeys with horse and rifle, Sontag seems to say there's no place far enough away even in the outback of America, Huckleberry Finn's "territories."
Personally, too, America cannot liberate everyone's soul. Some habits persist; some character traits tattoo the soul. And so it is that the commune fails, Maryna returns to the stage, and most of the émigrés return to Poland, bodies, if not dreams, intact. During the commune's inauguration, Maryna compares signing the property deed to a bride on her wedding day marrying the wrong man; it's less the fact of the community's collapse than its slow unraveling that propels the novel forward.
Not everyone throws in the towel. For a few, America unleashes that purer self Maryna constantly contemplates. Bogdan, a gentle and devoted caretaker, plays Leonard Woolf to Maryna's Virginia. He comes to America with no expectations of his own, observing, "The relentless success of these Californians gets on my nerves. I am bred to a distinctively Polish appreciation of the nobility of failure." From moneyed count to subsistence farmer, Bogdan embodies "forbidden desire, straining to be freed by foreignness." Bogdan's conflicting need to be true to Maryna while pining after the young men in the area soon becomes his sole obsession. In the end Bogdan — his name butchered first to "Bobdan" and then to "Bobby" by the local boys he so admires — discovers freedom in a contraption rife with symbolism: the aeroplane a renegade scientist is surreptitiously testing on the California beaches.
In details like Bogdan's love affair with flight, in moments of gritty detail like Ryszard's description of his ferry passage from Europe to New York, and in the set pieces highlighting the late 19th century's changing cultural watermarks, the novel is at its best. When a self-employed photographer arrives in Anaheim, the picture-taking scene at the commune's hodgepodge of buildings stands out in its rich evocation of the time period. The reader imagines the resulting photograph existing somewhere still, perhaps atop Sontag's writing table.
Ultimately, however, In America is really Maryna's tale. She is the novel's triumph and, occasionally, its weak spot. There's something of Anna Karenina in Maryna: weary of her own marvels, crazy for her son but willing to remain apart from him in the name of a stronger hunger, self-aware without always knowing herself. Her musings on how to master favorite plays of the day, from "As You Like It" and "the Scottish play" to the sentimental weepie "East Lynne," together with her critiques of the nature of acting itself, overshadow, both for her and the reader, her commune experience. As a result of this self-absorption, she forms a weak link to other characters. Even her voluminous letters home, significantly, go unanswered. Communication is not a lifeline to a place outside herself but one Maryna throws inward. Sontag is much more interested in plumbing her mind than in putting her to work engaging other characters. She's a fine and complicated companion; she's Sontag whispering, shouting, showing us the grand dramatic production of our shared American heritage.
Elizabeth Haas is a writer and critic living in Annapolis, Maryland.