As Susan Choi’s second novel, American Woman, opens, three members of a Los Angeles radical militant group called the People’s Army have just survived an FBI raid that has left their comrades dead. A former Berkeley radical named Rob Frazer has rented them a house in rural New York State, where Juan, Yvonne, and Pauline can hide, regain their strength, and write a book about their beliefs and experiences. It’s bound to be a bestseller: Pauline is the daughter of a prominent California family whom the cadre first kidnapped then converted to their brand of militantism. The group’s “Publicity Princess,” as Juan derides her, she ensures their names, faces, and demands will appear in every newspaper in the country — a mixed blessing for fugitives torn between hiding and leading a widespread social revolution.
To baby-sit them, Frazer tracks down a Japanese-American radical named Jenny Shimada in rural New England, where she is hiding from her own past. Ironically, she is working long, lonely days to restore a crumbling mansion, an emblem of the old money she once fought against. After much debate, she agrees reluctantly to guard the three fugitives, counsel them in their recovery, and oversee the book.
If these events sound familiar, that’s because Choi has based American Woman on the story of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper baron and Citizen Kane subject William Randolph Hearst. In 1974, she was kidnapped by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army and held for ransom, but she allegedly adopted the cadre’s beliefs and was indoctrinated into their group. A few months later, she helped them rob the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, after which she went into hiding for a “lost year.”
Choi sticks closely to the historical timeline; almost every action is based on an actual event, and each character has his or her real-life counterpart. This adherence to accuracy, however, does not limit the novel’s scope or its power, despite its predetermined course. Rather, American Woman feels spontaneous, natural, and — most crucially — novelistic. Choi exerts such control over the proceedings that these characters become her own creations, not just ciphers of the past. She not only explores their vague radicalism but also uses them to re-create the historical moment when California liberal radicalism and youthful idealism were dying.
In other words, readers need not be familiar with Hearst’s story to grasp the particulars of American Woman and the implications of Pauline’s conversion. It is, as Choi explains, another example of the mutability of identity — specifically female identity — in America, which offers so many opportunities for self-re-creation. “If their plan was to remake the world,” Choi writes, “then they had to be able to remake themselves.”
Pauline takes this idea to perverse ends. She is both naïve and deeply, perhaps even unconsciously, manipulative, and she adapts to the various predicaments — kidnapping, hiding, incarceration — with surprising fluidity. Her loyalty to the cause and to her comrades is constantly questioned by the other characters, who believe she must have been coerced or brainwashed. Choi walks a fine line in rendering Pauline’s motives and loyalties unreadable while making her feel real and whole as a character, and this ambiguity is unnerving and exhilarating.
American Woman becomes liveliest when Jenny and Pauline escape the farmhouse and hit the road together. This is unexplored territory for Choi, a point when the Patty Hearst story becomes especially murky. Finally away from men who manipulate and relegate them to preset gender roles, these two American women develop into a very different, very self-aware type of radical:
Their lives had been compromised from the start by a legacy of imperial violence they could either have condoned through inaction, thus enabling violence itself, or resisted, thus consigning themselves to a marginal place with regard to the sullied mainstream. This marginality, morally right as it was, had bred moral wrong.
No matter how far they drive or how deep they hide, the fugitives cannot escape their compromised morality, their Americanness. They are persistently spooked by the vague possibility of capture and by their own failures to live up to their lofty ideals. For them and for Choi, America offers countless opportunities for exploration and discovery, and American Woman seems to want to take advantage of every single one. As a result, it is this year’s great American novel, one that gracefully balances historical re- creation with unbounded literary invention.