IN THE SIXTIES, Susan Sontag was a literary celebrity. This was a great feat in those television years, even more so because she was known not for fiction, but for her essays and literary criticism. Her formalist manifesto, "Against Interpretation," cut apart the old ways of reading fiction, but although the work is still assigned in literary-criticism courses, Sontag has moved on to other notions. She's left the clinical world of essays for the fantastical world of novel writing, and this unburdening seems to be a relief for writer and readers alike.
This doesn't mean Sontag's a different writer; her literary voice is still so controlled and mannerly that it seems at times to be the work of an earlier century's mind. Her latest novel is such a marvel of research and precise arrangement that it seems guided by logic rather than imagination.
In America is a fiction based on the life of the Polish émigré Helena Modjeska, an actress who came to the United States with a group of friends in 1876 to found a farming commune. At the book's beginning, Sontag's heroine Maryna Zalezowska lives out her days on the stage as a human shell housing the personalities of her characters. At age 35, she's rapidly becoming too ancient for the fickle theater world, and she decides to make up a new story. She moves to America, and a flock of friends and lovers follow. "How easy it had been....To change one's life: it's as easy as taking off a glove," she thinks, and indeed, this is as effortless a pioneer story as anyone has yet told.
Rather than toil on the prairie, Maryna heads for sunny California, and soon her entourage is operating a little vineyard and transforming the desert into a marvel of irrigation and sunshine. (If only Pa Ingalls had gone to Cali!) It's not all hobby farming for these utopians, though. Ryzard, a friend who is tirelessly in love with Maryna, sits out in the barn and produces briskly selling novels to supplement the commune's income. "And what is the point of telling stories, if not to stir up the longing everyone harbors for an alternative life?" Sontag writes. After a spell, Ryzard isn't content to woo and worship through his imagination on the page, and eventually he just grabs up his (married, possibly bigamous) heroine and smooches her in a jarringly silly romantic interlude. Maryna is fairly wooden, and Ryzard uses the term love cave, and, well, after that things can't do anything but fall apart.
As Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance might have suggested, the only thing more American than utopianism is the way it never manages to work out. Love triangles and loveless marriages sour the entire batch of winemakers in this California commune, and the bracing freedom of America begins to work its cure upon its inhabitants. First they lose their Polish names, their accents, and their taste for despair. Then they become true Americans and lose their selflessness. It is good to see these tense Poles loosen their laces a bit. It's just not good for commune life. Acts of independence seldom are.