In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the philosopher Walter Benjamin gives the old truism that all history is present history a characteristically gnomic twist. “Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns,” he writes, “threatens to disappear irretrievably.” Perhaps it’s a measure of our current concerns, then, that we’re witnessing a revival of novelistic interest in the 1960s and 1970s. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, those tumultuous decades had come to seem almost quaint. Green Day headlined Woodstock ’94, Have A Nice Day Cafes sprouted like daisies in “revitalized” downtowns, and That ’70’s Show reimagined the Jimmy Carter era as a fashion parade, all bellbottoms and shaggy hair. Absent the context of war and Watergate, retro dessicated into kitsch. It was possible to take part without inhaling.
Philip Roth’s 1996 novel American Pastoral seems, in retrospect, a turning point. Relating the saga of Swede Lvov and his bomb-wielding daughter, Merry, Roth bypassed (by and large) the aesthetic signifiers of the counterculture in favor of an investigation of its moral and ethical ambiguities. More recently, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review) have plumbed the mixed legacy of the Age of Aquarius. Even among such distinguished company, however, Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, nominated for the National Book Award in 2005, stands out for the breadth of its historical vision and for the fearlessness of its prose. While Sorrentino keeps his radical heroine slightly out-of-focus, the book’s real protagonist – the post-Vietnam zeitgeist – comes to seem vividly present, in every sense of the word.
Trance takes as its point of departure the real-life kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst by the violent screwballs of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Hearst took the nom de guerre Tania; Sorrentino keeps the pseudonym, but constructs behind it an alternative heroine, one Alice Galt. Like Hearst, Galt is the scion of a wealthy newspaper family. Also like Hearst, she ends up making common cause with her captors, assisting in a bank robbery, and subsequently finding herself both a fugitive from justice and the center of a media frenzy. Trance is largely the story of Tania’s cross-country flight from the law and of her eventual apprehension.
Along the way, Tania crosses paths with a series of eccentrics: de facto SLA leaders Teko and Yolanda (a.k.a. Drew and Diane Shepard); an opportunistic wheeler-dealer named Guy Mock (reminiscent of Lawrence Schiller in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song); and an ambivalent fellow traveler, Joan Shimada. An equally motley cavalcade of federal agents, journalists, and loved ones gets sucked along in her wake. Making liberal use of the free indirect style, Sorrentino offers us a variety of perspectives on Tania and the SLA: Joan’s, Guy’s, her parents’… Of course, this technique raises more questions than it answers: has Tania been brainwashed? Has she turned her back for good on bourgeois society? Or are the SLA’s politics simply an excuse to indulge in cathartic mayhem?
Sorrentino is too shrewd to resolve these tensions. Instead, he portrays Tania as an antecedent to today’s culture of celebrity – the sum of the rumors she gives rise to. At his best, he manages to refract through her, as through a prism, the mingled paranoia and hope and fatuousness of an age. Here, for example, the narrative takes on the tints of Tania’s subjectivity:
She has become an expert at living in closets, has developed unambiguous preferences (e.g., length is more desirable than width), has slept in them and eaten in them and read books in them and been raped in them and recorded messages to the People in them. This, just generally, is not the life she was raised to live. Here is a seizure of a kind of exquisite loneliness, a sudden shuddering. She wants to pick up the phone. She wants to go out for drinks. She wants the free fresh wind in her hair.
Present-tense narration can run the risk of falling into a cinematic rut, but Sorrentino’s prose is marvelously alive to the various registers of American English, from propaganda to cant to advertising to poetry. The latter two become indistinguishable in that last phrase, “the free fresh wind in her hair” – Shelley meets Prell. Sorrentino is in love with the name brands and anagrams overtaking the landscape, and they creep into his sentences as well. Ritz, Kraft, Mr. Coffee…the resulting tension between nostalgia and irony, and even the cadences of certain paragraphs, recall the Eisenhower-era passages of Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
Trance shares weaknesses, too, with DeLillo. They are chiefly weaknesses of characterization. Joan Shimada and Guy Mock are wonderfully proportioned, and even supporting players like Tania’s mother reveal hidden dimensions. Teko and Yolanda, however, seem to have infiltrated Trance from the pages of a less searching, more satirical novel. Each has one note – shrill – and, without any way to see the forces that flattened them into their present shapes, the reader finds it too easy to write them (and, in turn, the SLA) off: They are simply, in the parlance of the times, “on a power trip.”
The case of Tania is more complicated. It’s clearly part of Sorrentino’s design to keep Tania a mystery, and for long stretches of the novel, that mystery draws us hypnotically in. However, in the end, we long for her character to precipitate out of the stories told about her, rather than to disperse like the airwaves that carry them. When Teko assaults her in an abandoned barn, we glimpse, suddenly, the woman she’s become, but her early days with the SLA – those weeks in a closet, her indoctrination, the rape alluded to above – remain frustratingly opaque. Perhaps this is Sorrentino’s nod to the ultimate unknowability of Patty Hearst’s motivations, even to herself.
Still, in its capacious interiority, Trance recovers a time when it seemed possible, however briefly, that a new age was about to begin… and that individual actions could bring it into being. It recovers, more specifically, that time’s violent conclusion. That these 1970s – full of bank robberies and kidnappings and assassination plots and wars real and imagined – can seem, from 2007, a more innocent time only speaks to the size of their legacy.