One of the novel's pleasures is watching Sontag's tightly wound mind in a relaxed state, airing out her ideas about American society.

In America
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 387 pages; $26

If the future, as imagined in literature, is really the present taken to extremes, then the past is also the present, but boiled down. Historical novels are science fiction too, that is, with the science stepped back instead of carried forward and origins emphasized over destinations. In whichever direction a writer shoots time’s arrow, though, the bowstring is human nature, a relative constant. Writing about the future and the past is less a way of dramatizing change than of showing, by way of contrast, what abides.

In Susan Sontag’s In America, what abides is dissatisfaction, restlessness, the hungry tapeworm of individual will. The setting is the United States in the late nineteenth century, and the country is, as ever, at a crossroads. The rising sun of American wealth and confidence is driving out the shadows of old-world culture. In the theaters, the gaslights are going out, replaced by flat, bright electric illumination. In poetry, Whitman is singing of himself and turning his broad American back on Europe. The southern rebels have been subdued, the Indians conquered, the frontier occupied, and the chattering ticker tape and roaring express train are where the action is. Onward. Don’t look back. Destiny has triumphed over heritage.

Into this churning social dynamo steps a group of idealistic immigrants, dragging a ball and chain of old-world sorrows. Along with her husband and a clutch of friends, Maryna Zalezowska, a Polish actress, ships out from Europe for Southern California. The dream is to establish a utopia run on communal, modern principles. The break with the past will be total, radical. In Poland, Maryna and her retinue were moody, brooding intellectuals; in America they’ll be self-sufficient farmers. It’s the usual immigrant story, but with a twist. What Maryna is leaving behind is not obscurity but an oppressive, suffocating fame; not poverty but tiresome social privilege. She’s the queen of the Warsaw stage, a great Shakespearean, and what she’s fleeing is sophistication, the accumulated weight of her performances. She wants to find the individual soul under all the build-up of kohl and greasepaint. She wants to speak her own mind, not the Bard’s.

As Maryna gets down to basics in America, stripping away the layers of artifice, what she finds is that there’s nothing underneath. She’s the sum of the parts she’s played, and little else. For Sontag, this is good news, though, not bad. Discovering one’s true self, she argues, outside of culture and society, is not just impossible but inadvisable, and leads to a sort of stagnation and despair. Time and again, her novel attacks the notion that purity is something to aspire to. Rebirth, for Maryna, means abandoning her goals of innocence and simplicity and taking up with complexity again.

For Sontag, what’s valuable about America is its energy, not its virtue. Once the farm falls apart and she resumes her stage career, Maryna achieves a tempered cosmopolitanism. She changes her name to make it more pronounceable, adds a crowd-pleasing melodrama or two to her repertoire of classic roles, and masters the tricks of American publicity. She meets the New World halfway, becomes pragmatic. This seems to be the optimal disposition, the one that the novel celebrates. In a way, it’s Sontag’s disposition, too. Like her last book, The Volcano Lover, In America is an elevated potboiler, packed with characters, incidents, and color, and combining mass appeal with high intelligence. Sontag’s days of stringent erudition are behind her, apparently – at least for now.

A tightly wound mind relaxing is always interesting. Sontag stretches her legs in the novel, airing out her ideas about society in the great American wide-open. The book has an invigorating spaciousness, taking in scenes of Nevada mining camps, New York hotels, and midwestern opera houses. There are memorable walk-ons of every caste and class: a woman saloonkeeper mourning a lost love; a fire-and-brimstone lady fundamentalist who warns Maryna to repent or burn; and the fabled American actor Edwin Booth, who delivers himself of a rambling, absorbing monologue revolving around his brother’s shooting of Lincoln. The best supporting players, such as Maryna’s husband, Bogdan (an elusive, gentlemanly bisexual), are realistically full of mixed motives and odd, dark corners. Sontag leaves much unexplained about her characters, which gives them life and mystery and vibrancy, while providing enough detail about their types to make them familiar and recognizable.

It’s Maryna who sits on the novel’s throne, though, difficult, willful, ambitious, self-involved, and gloriously, appealingly dissatisfied. Her specialty is tragic heroines; her fate on the stage, to die and die again, usually in payment for some sin against traditional notions of women’s duty. However free she may be in private life – free to take lovers, to travel, to earn money – she’s obligated, once the curtain rises, to offer herself on the altar of puritan vengeance. What American audiences want most, she learns, is clockwork morality plays about neglectful mothers and errant wives. At first, she avoids such parts on principle, holding fast to her classical training and personal dignity, but in time she gives in, acculturated at last. The compromise isn’t fatal or depressing, though; it’s a step toward professional empowerment. The theater is not about idealism, particularly the American theater. It’s about living to work another day in a country that isn’t sure it even approves of you or your profession. Or your sex, for that matter.

In America is most successful as an old-fashioned, full-dress chronicle of life in the theater. Sontag loves the old plays she writes about and seems to know them cold, as does Maryna. There’s plenty of lore and shoptalk in the story, plenty of backstage gossip about the greats. Without being stilted or pedantic about it, Sontag sums up the history of stagecraft back to the Elizabethans. Maryna is part of a living, breathing tradition larger even than her adopted nation, and the book treats American history as a subplot of artistic history. Nations, tastes, and customs come and go, and individuals come and go within them. The drama endures, though, surviving by moving on. Maryna, like all great players, is a chameleon. She can’t be pinned down by any single ideology, any one language or politics or system. She reserves the right to be whatever she needs to be whenever she needs to be it, as she sees fit. America is just another theater, another stop on a long, ongoing tour.