Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Radical Reinvention in Hari Kunzru’s Novel “My Revolutions”

Michael Frame is a mild-mannered bookseller who lives in suburban London with his wife Miranda, her daughter and a closet full of skeletons. Michael Frame is the assumed name and reinvented personality of Chris Carver, a left-wing agitator and member of a loosely-knit group of Vietnam era revolutionaries. Hari Kunzru’s philosophical-political thriller “My Revolutions” is the story of Chris Carver’s shady history catching up with his new persona, and his attempt to keep his past from invading his new life and family.

As a teenager Chris Carver's activism kicks off when he joins the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. His family objects to his growing radicalism. “That day was the end of something in our family,” he says as he parts ways with his family. “I couldn’t give it a name, but after that it had gone.” At 18 years old Chris is imprisoned for his participation in a protest, a process which only serves to radicalize him further. Chris could be called a libertarian socialist. He believes in government only to the extent that it operates according to the consent of the governed. “The problem was that I couldn’t remember giving my consent,” Chris says. “What paper had I signed?”

Out of jail, Chris falls in with a group of squatters, vandals, stoners and wanna-be Che Guevaras. They're a mix of pissed-off middle class students, self-righteous yuppies and pre-punk rebels.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the Vietnam War in full swing, these self-described anti-imperialists do whatever they can to throw some wrenches in the official gears. But as their dissatisfaction grows, members of the group become increasingly combative. They lose sight of reality and begin acting not like activists, but terrorists. It’s not long before they’re manufacturing home-made bombs and smuggling automatic weapons into Britain.

As he ages Chris begins to doubt the morality and effectiveness of the group’s actions. “Despite my militancy, I was privately pessimistic. I didn’t believe that a protest, violent or not, would change anything.” After a particularly rough protest he asks his comrades: “Can someone tell me what the hell the point of today was?” No one answers.

Chris can’t grasp what exactly it is they’re fighting for. He wonders what a post-revolutionary society would look like, and he is concerned when none of the miltants give an explanation. Perplexed, he asks a comrade:

“What do you think it will look like?”
“After the Revolution. What kind of place will this be?”
“That’s not for us to know.”
“What do you mean, not for us to know? That sounds just like mysticism.”

Kunzru does quite a good job of tying together different times and places into a single narrative. But there are points in the novel where Michael Frame’s current action and Chris Carver’s past become seemingly intertwined. Kunzru frequently starts off with Michael Frame’s day-to-day life, slips into five or six pages of Chris Carver’s flashbacks to the 1960s, only to drop right back into Michael Frame as if he hadn’t skipped beat. It’s a bit confusing, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is who and when is when. Perhaps this is intentional on the author’s part, but it requires the reader to stay quite focused on the text.

While the novel has its rough patches, it’s clear that Kunzru has done his homework. I'm 28 years old, so I obviously wasn’t alive during the 1960s, but Kunzru's description of the revolutionary fervor of that time strikes me as authentic. Michael Frame’s life in the 1990s seems equally real. “You’re lucky that politics feels optional, something it’s safe to ignore,” Chris says of the political climate of the 90s. “Most people in the world have it forced on them.”

As the novel nears the end, Chris Carver/Michael Frame begins to run out of time and places to hide. Kunzru steers clear of melodrama and forced epiphanies as he unravels Michael Frame's adopted personality and forces Chris Carver out of hiding.

But who can Chris trust with his damning secrets?

"My Revolutions" is the story of one man's secret past coming back to haunt him. This is not a unique form, but it's a hell of a good way to kick up the tension. This same structure is what makes David Cronenberg's film "A History of Violence" such an intense and powerful story. This novel is full of philosophical and political nuance, but it packs the punch and plot twists of a great spy thriller. "My Revolutions" is the rare novel that I recommend to philosophy nerds and thriller fans. 

4/5 stars?

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