Susan Sontag’s In America

by Jess

I hated this book at first.  The prologue (a first-person narrator, who is absent from the rest of the book, begins by imagining herself a few hundred years ago, observing from a corner of the room a party in Poland; she makes up names and back stories for the party-goers, who become the characters who inhabit the novel) was confusing and ponderous.  The first few chapters were incredibly slow, and I put it down a few times without intending to pick it back up.  But driven by boredom, I did just that, and I’m glad I did.

Sontag’s style of writing is unique.  Dense, intelligent, and at times strangely skimming the surface of her characters, she takes a while to work up momentum, but then manages to hold the reader’s attention.  (Well, sometimes; the reviews of In America on Amazon are varied.)   I found her changes in tone particularly interesting.  Several times, she switches from a third-person limited to first person scenes, diary entries, letters, theatrical dialog, streams of consciousness, etc., without announcing the change or telling us who is speaking.  The reader simply has to be swept along with the current until she can catch up.  Some of these, particularly the streams of consciousness, are very beautiful stretches of writing.  I did wonder at her choice to end the novel with a long monologue by the famous actor Edwin Booth, who was mentioned previously but didn’t play a part in the story.  The tension had been building, and I was expecting some sort of hubris-driven collapse, but the novel just sort of ground to a halt at Booth’s monologue.  I still haven’t figured that bit out yet.

The story follows Maryna Lezowska, a Polish actress, and her entourage, who immigrate to America to start a utopian community.  Interestingly, Maryna Lezowska is based on a real woman, Helena Modrzejewska.  (I love learning more about real-life people from fiction.)  Also interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on Modrzejewska claims the book generated controversy because Sontag was accused of plagiarizing other books about her.  Too bad the other books didn’t win the National Book Award.  (Sontag claims, unconvincingly, “There’s a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions.”)

In America raises a lot of questions to explore about utopia, art, love, and Americanness (Old World vs. New World).  I love her categorizations of Polish national identity and what it meant to be an American at the turn of the century.  It would be fun to pull this novel apart for more in-depth study, but that’s not what I’m about these days (le sigh).  Besides, just reading In America demands a lot of attention and engagement.

I’ve just started reading Southland, by Nina Revoyr.  More to come on that soon!