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In America: A Novel Paperback – May 4, 2001
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It's ironic, then, that In America revolves around a regular paragon of self-consciousness: a brilliant Polish diva named Maryna Zalezowska. The year is 1876, and this Bernhardt-like figure has decided to abandon the stage and establish a utopian commune in (you guessed it) California. Not exactly a logical career move, is it? Yet this journey to America does involve a major feat of self-reinvention, for which Maryna may be uniquely qualified. Writing a letter home from the brave new world of Hoboken, New Jersey, she argues against the idea that "life cannot be restarted, that we are all prisoners of whatever we have become." And once she arrives in Anaheim with her husband, child, and fellow utopians in tow, she does seem to slough off the skin of her older, European self. She is now that exotic creature, an American, existing in an equally exotic landscape--which happens to elicit some of Sontag's most lyrical prose:
They had never felt as erect, as vertical, their skin brushed by the hot Santa Ana wind, their ears lulled by the oddly intrusive sound of their own footfalls.... Hardly anything is near anything here: those slouching braided sentinels, the yucca trees, and bouquets of drooping spears, the agaves, and the squat clusters of prickly pears, all so widely spaced, so unresembling--and nothing had to do with anything else.Like every utopia in human history, Maryna's is a failure. Following its collapse, she is moved to return to the theater--but as an American, now, plugged securely into the middlebrow culture of her adopted land. The rest of the novel charts her brilliant career among the philistines, along with a number of heated erotic detours.
Given its subject matter, Sontag's novel is oddly anti-dramatic: she juggles a half-dozen narrative strategies but seldom allows us to sink our teeth into a prolonged scene. Yet she delivers a great many other riches by way of compensation. Her take on the perils and pleasures of expatriation is worthy of Henry James (who actually makes a cameo appearance, assuring Maryna that England and America will morph into "one big Anglo-Saxon total.") And she includes a superbly entertaining portrait of theatrical life, culminating in a virtuoso monologue from Edwin Booth that suggests a Gilded Age Samuel Beckett. As always, there is the pleasure of watching the author's formidable intelligence at work, immersing us in the details of a character or landscape and then surfacing for a deep draught of abstraction. Perhaps Sontag is too cerebral to ever produce a straightforward work of fiction. But this time around, anyway, she brings both brains and literary brawn to bear on what Henry James himself called "the complex fate" of being an American. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
Starting the novel with an awkward Zero chapter--meant, I think, to better explain the characters--Susan Sontag tells of Maryna Zalezowska, the leading Polish actress of the 1870s, who comes to California to open a utopian commune near Anaheim. The commune quickly fails, and Zalezowska begins the task of reinventing herself as an American actress. She does this brilliantly, and begins a new career traveling across the United States in a private train car performing everything from Shakespeare to the 19th century's favorite sob-fest, "East Lynne."
The sections on how an actress of that age learned and prepared roles, and the insight into nuts-and-bolts workings of 19th century American theater are marvelous, as are the stunning monologue chapters expressing the three main characters' internal and external struggles (the book ends with a devastating monologue by Edwin Booth that is one terrific piece of writing). On the other hand some of the characters are barely sketched and "In America" simply ends. There's no resolution, no sense that the last page of the book should be the last page-in fact, you'll probably turn that page expecting a concluding chapter. And you'll feel cheated.
There's something mean about allowing readers such access to characters' minds and emotions and then chopping the narrative when there is obviously so much to come. Is it that Sontag can't sustain the narrative?Read more ›
"In America" begins in a post-modernist fashion, the book's "Chapter Zero" being the first person narrative of a contemporary authorial voice who finds herself coming out of the cold winter of an unidentified Eastern European city, shivering, into a party in the private dining room of a hotel more than a hundred years earlier. There is seemingly a disjunction of time and place. The narrator does not understand the language the people are speaking, "but somehow, I didn't question how, their words reached me as sense." From this point, the authorial voice, the imagination, begins naming the people in the room-in effect, begins creating the characters that will populate the tale to follow-and begins probing the animated conversation she overhears, the snippets of enigmatic dialogue that will gradually accrete into the novel.Read more ›
Ultimately, the book fails to achieve a unified theme. Sontag hints at the destruction of a utopian society, at the strange interworkings of a marriage of convenience, at an actress's chameleonic personality, at the "plight" of the privileged immigrant. However, none of these themes is explored in depth, nor does any one seem to be the author's driving motivation behind the book. Similarly, none of the characters' behavior offers convincing explanation; and therefore, not a single character won my sympathy or understanding.
For a captivating book on immigration to the West, as well as the profound, analytical exploration of two very different people in a marriage, I highly recommend Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose instead. In America is a weak, languishing similitude of that great book, at best.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A little hard to get into. My daughter helped me understand some of it as she is a literature professor.Published on January 11, 2014 by Carmen McMahon
Unlike most stories of immigrants to America, this one focuses as much on the land and culture being left behind as on the new country. Read morePublished on August 27, 2013 by Pauline A. Candaux
I have always wanted to read this book so when I saw it at a school fair I was happy to buy it. On the cover it says it won the National Book Award of 2000 and awards mean a good... Read morePublished on December 6, 2011 by Meredith
I was hoping for a long more than this from Sontag and the National Book Award committee. The story is somewhat of a cliche and the characters -- while noble in a sense -- are... Read morePublished on November 27, 2011 by J. Smallridge
"In America" is a strange, beautiful and difficult book among Susan Sontag's oeuvre. Better known by her non-fiction, this one is a quasi-departure from her milieu. Read morePublished on July 26, 2009 by Alysson Oliveira
A truly entertaining book that kept me captivated. I enjoyed Sontag's use of different writing styles to convey the many characters through the story.Published on April 21, 2009 by Alan E.