Susan Sontag’s name has been consistently popping up in my email’s inbox by way of the weekly newsletter dispatched from Brain Pickings. The frequent exposure to her name, and excerpts from her novels, had begun to lend her a legendary status in my mind – she was one of those (many) writers of whom I hear, and know are influential in some way or another through their life and work, but have yet to engage with personally.
Not wanting to only be a reader of memes and snippets, I grabbed her novel, In America, off the shelf at one of my favorite used bookstores. Blindly, I trusted that, because there was a National Book Award Winner medallion on the cover, and because Maria Popova (creator of Brain Pickings) celebrates Sontag’s work so much, I would be captivated by the book. And I was...kind of.
Starting at Chapter Zero of the book, which drops readers into a social fray as a clueless wallflower, Sontag makes clear her brilliance as a writer. Effortlessly, you’re walked around a dinner party, eavesdropping, overhearing, and piecing things together like a detective. In this uninvited way, you find yourself welcome amidst the company of characters whose ambiguous attachments are made clear the longer you hang around and listen.
Throughout In America, Sontag uses a narrative style that implements fly-on-the-wall perspectives, glimpses inside character’s diaries, letter correspondences, and one-sided dialogues, which read like monologues, to paste texture on her tale.
The story, whose main character is a star actress from Poland trying to make a life and a career for herself in America near the latter part of the 19th century, often found its setting in theaters and on stages across the country. And when I did find myself being hypnotized by the drama, I credit it to the theatrical, somewhat script-like quality of her writing that expertly mirrored the novel’s content.
If you’re a lover of American history, particularly America post-Civil War, mid-Gold Rush, and pre-World War(s), then making this literary emigration to the New World provides a unique look at a nation that was floundering in its own melting pot. Sontag masterfully meshed compelling characters into a time in American history that was dominated by both tumult and hope.
All that said, I didn’t love this book. Its most admirable elements – detailed descriptions, complicated characters filled with paradoxical desires, and a fascinating time in history as the contextual backdrop – were also its most tedious to read, and I found myself wanting to rush ahead to draw out the conclusions that would move the plot forward.
"You are whatever you think you are. And to be free to think yourself something you're not (not yet), something better than what you are — isn't that the true freedom promised by the country to which he was journeying?"
"Happiness depended on not being trapped in your individual existence, a container with your name on it. You have to forget yourself, your container. You have to attach yourself to what takes you outside yourself, what stretches the world."
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