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Running on empty

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

Early in Hari Kunzru’s third novel, “My Revolutions,” there’s a scene that highlights its edgy clarity. It’s 1968, and Kunzru’s protagonist, a young radical named Chris Carver, has just been arrested after an antiwar rally in London turns violent. In his jail cell, he meets another protester, self-proclaimed revolutionary filmmaker Miles Bridgeman, who asks about the world Chris means to build.

"[W]hat kind of future will it be?” Miles wonders. “What exactly? . . . Picture it in your head. What’s different? How does it work? How do they do things? What do you see?” Frustrated, Chris can summon up only the image of “walking down the street smiling,” as if the future were a kind of ad. “I was angry with myself,” he admits. “Was that really all I could imagine? Not even to have a picture of freedom. How abject. How bleak.”

It’s precisely this tension -- between the romance of insurrection and the elusive goal of a new order; between the anger of the young, the disillusioned and the entrenched structures of society -- that is the underlying theme of “My Revolutions,” which opens 30 years after Chris’ jailhouse revelation in an England where “the old town-center tradesmen have gone out of business, butchers and ironmongers and family-run tea rooms edged out by branches of Starbucks and Pizza Hut.” Chris now lives quietly under the name Mike Frame, with a common-law wife and an adopted daughter who know nothing of his history; he’s been hiding in plain sight since the early 1970s, when the radical group with which he was affiliated embarked on a virulent bombing campaign.

How, Kunzru wants us to consider, does idealism lead to violence, and then to a passivity that nullifies them both? In recent years, similar questions have motivated a host of novels, including Christopher Sorrentino’s “Trance” and Susan Choi’s “American Woman,” both of which re-imagine the strange saga of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document,” which also traces the after story of a 1960s radical gone underground.

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But if “My Revolutions” has much in common with these efforts, it’s a more inward-looking book. Beginning at the very moment when a much older Miles blows Chris’ (or Mike’s) cover, this is a novel about identity as much as politics, built around the notion that our most cherished beliefs, hopes, desires, even memories, are little more than constructs in the end. “All things are transitory,” Chris reflects. “All things must pass. Attachments, whether to material possessions, to people, to places or a name, are futile. Despite your clinging, these things will fade away.”

At its heart, “My Revolutions” is an inquiry into the metaphysics of rebellion, a novel that frames radicalism as a spiritual path. “You can’t hate the world’s imperfection so fiercely, so absolutely, without getting drawn toward death,” Kunzru suggests. “Beyond a certain point it becomes the only possibility.” He’s writing here about Anna Addison, the now-dead revolutionary who once inflamed Chris’ heart, but the statement resonates across the book. Shifting back and forth in time between Chris/Mike’s flight from exposure and his relentless explication of his history, “My Revolutions” dissects the pure white heat of extremism and the way it often leads less to liberation than to a self-imposed servitude.

Certainly, this is what happens to Chris, who starts out protesting atomic weapons, only to slip into radicalism after he meets Anna and her on-again-off-again lover Sean Ward. Together, they form a group devoted to a rigid, if amorphous, revolutionary practice based equally on Marxist theory and middle-class guilt. “We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war,” Sean is fond of saying, quoting Chairman Mao. “But war can only be abolished through war and in order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun.” Still, in the early days, their actions have a more practical effect. At one point, they break into a supermarket, liberating “chicken after chicken . . . sacks of potatoes, jars of coffee, whole pallets of canned vegetables” to distribute to the poor. “We formed a human chain to get the stuff upstairs,” Chris recalls, “and by the time it was properly light, people across the area were waking up to find several days’ of groceries on their doorstep. In each box was a slip of paper:

“After the revolution there will be enough for all.”

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That’s a beautiful moment, politics as poetry, a reminder of the hope that fueled the best of 1960s activism. Before long, however, that vision collapses into a shadow world of the group’s invention, in which not hope but paranoia is the fundamental force. Here, Kunzru is at his finest, subtly evoking the slow slip into dogma, the fascism of the doctrinaire. “You just aren’t human, you people. What’s so bloody revolutionary about being cruel?” cries one member of the group after a particularly brutal Criticism-Self-Criticism session, and even 30 years later, Chris/Mike can’t quite free himself of that rigidity, the idea of revolution as a form of asceticism, a way to seal himself off from, rather than engage with, the world. “Renounce anger,” he tells himself, “forsake pride. Sorrow cannot touch the man who is not in thrall to anything, who owns nothing.”

Partly, it’s a survival strategy, but Kunzru is deftly exploring how we get caught in our belief systems, in abstractions that separate us from ourselves. Certainly, this is true of Chris, who walks away from his past, drifting across Europe and Thailand, only to end up trapped by the lie he’s forced himself to live inside. But it’s also true of Miles, who has long since sold out to the highest bidder, as well as the long-dead Sean and Anna, bound in a rhetorical spiral from which they cannot escape.

This theme is echoed throughout the book: “So I carry on, round and round, Porte des Lilas, Porte de Montreuil, right shoulder inward, circumambulating the large stupa at Wat Tham Nok, following the line of chanting monks, the tea light in its little clay bowl warming my hands. Circling in the Aegean, the taste of salt on my lips, blank and free. Round and round. Porte de Charenton. Trudging round the yard at morning exercise. My revolutions.” In the end, it all blurs together, past and present, personal and political, Chris Carver and Mike Frame.

So how do we break free? How do we come clean? How do we make a real revolution in our lives? Kunzru’s too smart to offer an answer, except to argue that the only revolution that matters is the personal revolution, based on responsibility and love. This is the counterpoint that runs through the novel, marking even its most overtly radical sentiments. “I wanted an end to poverty, to carpet bombing, to the numbness and corruption of the death-driven society I’d been born into,” Chris observes, explaining the sentiment that underscores his tilt toward violence.

And yet, as his experience shows us, our fiercest passions are not enough. “Because legality is just the name for everything that’s not dangerous for the ruling order, because the poor starve while the rich play, because the flickering system of signs is enticing us to give up our precious interiority and join the dance and because just round the corner an insect world is waiting, so saying we must love one another or die isn’t enough, not by a long way, because there’ll come a time when any amount of love will be too late.”

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david.ulin@latimes.com


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