Burn by Jennifer Natalya Fink

[21 January 2004]

By N. A. Hayes

Anxiety

True dissent is not fully expressed any longer in American popular culture. The act and faith of participating in a legalistic society has led us to believe in the myth of stability. For example, the 2000 presidential election in the US brought more confusion than outrage, and speaks more to the near-universal American complacency than any event in recent memory. Not one state threatened to secede, not one soldier armed himself to defend our democracy from our politicians. Fundamentally, we have faith in the way our society works, and it doesn’t greatly matter what leadership we have. We may want to tack down some loose social issues, such as the right to choose, or gay marriage. But few want to change the innate social structure. However, not too long ago, groups like the American Communists wanted to change the very way American society functions. In Burn, Jennifer Natalya Fink illuminates the death throws of dissent in the communist communes and their social protests during the 1950s. Fink’s use of the book’s historical context casts a fading but powerful light on our own repression.

Our current struggle with dissent happens on a more distant level than in Burn. Certainly we are aware of the global Communist/capitalist struggle of the fifties, but these involved spheres of influence, and proxy wars, more than the regime toppling of the Secular-cum-Judeo-Christian/militant Islam conflict. Our current round of indefinite detentions is mediated by the fact that detained are clearly outsiders not infiltrators. Of course, Western society has a history of resident outsiders in groups likes the Jews or Gypsies. But in contemporary society, reading from a Jewish perspective is not alien, Jewish culture has become part of the normative discourse (Consider the acceptance of The Diary of Anne Frank, and the Rug Rats Chanukah special.)

Fink manages the cultural uncertainty of the outsider and dissenter in the material deftly by presenting not only a Communist heroine but one that is Jewish as well in a time that prized greater homogeneity. She gives us a beautiful and believable voice in Sylvie, the narrator, who moves in the heightened paranoia of the McCarthy era with both caution and the realization that this is just her every day. She has her doubts but holds to the threads of old belief even as they are torn, and as she enters into an illicit sexual relationship.

Burn is a novel of decadence, but in the word’s original meaning of decline, covering the final life stage of many things: a community, a woman’s fertility, a family. Its movements are as frenetic as the temperature fluctuations of menopause. The narrator Sylvie undergoes this change, but it seems that her entire world follows suit. She is not powerless, but powerless to regulate the temperature: physical, social or romantic.

Simon, her silent foundling lover, exists with very little context: mute, often naked (shedding what few clothes he has), named only by the dog tag he wears. He is less a person, than another environmental stimuli. Sylvie alternately humanizes and objectifies him, in the end allowing neither approach to interfere with their physical relationship. He fascinates, letting his silence be filled with her own meaning. The only corollary Simon seems to have is the phantasmagoric FBI, clearly interested in speeding along the decline, sweeping away the failed cultural detritus of Communist dissent to make way for the inevitable progress of capitalism.

The book exquisitely explores the possibilities offered in paranoia. Sylvie’s paranoia is rooted in the reality that her government is trying to destroy what her and her community had at least intended to stand for. In the end, this book brings the reader into its fevered world, but it is well worth the uncertainty about the actions and feelings in our own lives, both personal and political.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/burn-2003/