Christopher Sorrentino probably did not pick the ideal time to publish a book about home-grown terrorists made famous by surveillance cameras...
Christopher Sorrentino probably did not pick the ideal time to publish a book about home-grown terrorists made famous by surveillance cameras. Still, it would be a shame if the recent bombings in London steered people away from his bold second novel, “Trance” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 528 pp., $26), which is certainly one of this year’s most surprising works of fiction. By turns indulgent and amazing, it follows a fictionalized Patty Hearst through two years of involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Back in the early 1970s, the SLA was a more hardcore but less thoughtful Weather Underground. They announced their appearance to the world in a “communiqué,” claiming to have assassinated the superintendent of Oakland, Calif., schools for supporting a law requiring students to carry ID cards.
The group might have gone gently into that good night of American amnesia were it not for the fact that in February 1974 they kidnapped Hearst from her Berkeley apartment, brainwashed her, and after stashing her in a closet for several weeks, unleashed her back into the public eye, renamed “Tania.” The photograph of her posing with a machine gun during a bank robbery in San Francisco is famous the world round.
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Christopher Sorrentino will read from “Trance,” 7:30 tonight, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
In “Trance,” Sorrentino allows Hearst the nom de guerre of “Tania” but gives her the “real” name of Alice Galton. Her compatriots, however, get to keep their own real names. This does not seem like an accidental detail, for although Hearst/Galton is the character which makes this book notable, it is the people around her who make it feel, well, like fiction. Their fears and petty insecurities and lame desires to transcend their bourgeois backgrounds would be almost touching, were they not also so creepily self-involved.
Hearst/Galton, however, begins as an icon, and only after 500 pages of marinating with characters that are not icons does she begin to seem three-dimensional. In the beginning sequence, as she and her compatriots go on the lam after a robbery, there is something phony and a little weird about her flipping up her sunglasses to reveal her famous face to plebes on the street. Somehow, what might work on camera feels smuggled into a novel under false pretense.
But that, in a way, might be one of Sorrentino’s points. It’s been 10 years since his precocious debut, “Sound on Sound,” a novel structured as a rock ‘n’ roll recording session, and his writing style has been retooled and nerved up for this thriller of sorts. If the opening sequence were shot for film it’d be done with handheld cameras and a grainy filter. Dialogue stops abruptly or sometimes trails off mid-sentence. Occasionally, Sorrentino cuts us some slack by zeroing in on some detail and describing it to a state of sublime clarity.
This is a long book, and happily, not all of it unfolds in this almost unbearably present-tense fashion, but it is suspenseful throughout. Like E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel,” context vibrates out of the sentences, rather than being foisted upon the action from above. Most of the action concerns Galton’s run from the law after a shootout with the LAPD kills most of her comrades.
As the consequences for “Tania” and everyone else involved increase, the stupidity of the SLA’s doublespeak becomes more and more painfully ironic. They wanted to liberate her from “fascist insects” that preyed upon people, but in nabbing Galton/Hearst they handed newspapers one of the juiciest stories of the mid-’70s. While their purpose was to bring a symbiosis back into life, all they provided was rupture.
Sorrentino marshals these observations into action without us really noticing, often keeping us occupied with “Trance’s” vivid emotional thread. We lose something when something becomes a media story, this novel suggests. We become hypnotized and detached. It takes novels like these to bring us back to the moment, to return our icons to us as flesh and blood, almost.
John Freeman is a writer in New York.