American Woman considers how radicalism can produce ambivalence
American Woman is a fictionalization of Patty Hearst kidnapping and aftermath – specifically, it focuses on the time between the SLA robbery of a sporting goods store in May 1974 and her arrest in April 1975.
The Patty Hearst stuff is the backdrop, anyway. The main character in the book isn’t Patty – it’s Jenny Shimada (i.e. Wendy Yoshimura). A few years before the book starts, Jenny bombs a series of federal buildings with her boyfriend to protest the Vietnam War. Her boyfriend got arrested by the FBI, and Jenny went on the run. She’s hiding (new name, new identity) in upstate New York when the book starts.
But the book doesn’t actually start with Jenny – it starts with Frazer, who’s based on activist Jack Scott. Frazer smuggles Pauline (i.e. Patty Hearst), Juan (i.e. William Harris), and Yvonne (i.e. Emily Harris) out of California after they shoot up a sporting goods store, accidentally reveal the location of their cadre (i.e. the SLA), and hear about the deaths of the entire cadre on a motel tv. When the book starts, Frazer’s in upstate New York, trying to locate Jenny. He finds her, recruits her to live with the fugitives and deal with groceries and other logistics, and then the book does the requisite Susan Choi about-face and switches from Frazer’s perspective to Jenny’s, where it remains (with a few digressions) for the rest of the book.
(I only recently discovered Susan Choi’s books – at the recommendation of a friend, I read Trust Exercise in July, and subsequently devoured My Education and American Woman. I’m a big fan of Choi’s dense but readable writing style that pulls you (at least, me) in. I also love that all three of Choi’s books that I’ve read do some sort of about-face, a disorienting perspective switch that ranges from relatively minor to absolutely mind boggling. I love twists, especially when they don’t come on the very last page.)
American Woman is about radicalism and the law and justice and racial injustice and coercion. But American Woman isn’t exactly political, and it’s not that interested in delving into the political minutiae of the SLA (“the cadre” in the book) and Berkeley-based radicals of the 1960s and 70s. It’s more interested in ambivalence, vanity, and ego.
Juan, Yvonne, and Pauline (and the rest of their cadre) are anti-system, anti-capitalism, anti-you-name-it. Pauline’s kidnapping is supposed to make this big point about capitalism and class but it just seems like they don’t know what they are doing and they don’t really understand the systems that they are railing against can’t pinpoint whey they are bad. Before Jenny meets Juan, Yvonne, and Pauline, she hears about them on the news and finds them… rather juvenile:
“They’d taken weeks to convey their demands [to Pauline’s father], and when they finally did she had the sense of a panicked all-night study session, or a coffee-soaked chainsmokers’ mad argument that had collapsed into indiscriminate compromise” (81).
This stands in stark contrast to William, Jenny’s boyfriend who’s in prison for the bombings that she helped commit:
“One of the first things she’d loved about William was his tireless perfectionism; he never chose a target for an action without researching exhaustively first, without being able to demolish its potential defenders with chapter and verse, without knowing its board of directors or slate of officials, its funding, the whole range of its acts, bad and good, in the world – but had this rigor been vanity too?” (350)
But how different are Juan and Yvonne and Pauline and William – and Jenny? They’ve all caused people’s deaths through their actions. They both believed their actions were ordained if not by god, then by some moral good; when in reality, the success of their actions is just “mere dumb luck, the god she’d so slavishly served in her year with Pauline, all the while believing it was not luck, but righteousness, that preserved them” (351).
The book is about luck and righteousness. Jenny contemplates whether all radicalism is performative and ego-driven, and what that means for her own actions and even her own relationship with William.
Partway through the book, Jenny and Pauline end up back in Berkeley and live together in a small apartment found with the assistance of some of Jenny’s contacts. Among other things, they dismantle guns to learn how they work, and read and discuss Marx and feminist texts. They do this in response to the performatism they’ve witnessed in radical circles, especially in radical men – “you could never read Marx, you had already read him” (291). This dream-line interlude in the apartment is a hint, possibly, the sort of radicalism, the idealism, that isn’t ego-centric. But it doesn’t go farther than a hint – the FBI captures Jenny and Pauline, and Pauline rats Jenny out.
Jenny concludes that “the only way to protest was by simply removing oneself from the world. Because what other way guaranteed you would never do harm?” (351). Wendy Yoshimura, the real Jenny, stayed in the world. Yoshimura is a watercolor artist living in Oakland – not too far away from the San Francisco apartment where she was arrested alongside Patty Hearst. In 2002, a number of SLA members plead guilty to a 1975 robbery. Yoshimura gave an interview. I couldn’t find the actual interview text, but an SF Gate article reports that “she did not want to discuss her radical past. Instead, she wanted to talk only about her painting, particularly 15 exquisite still-life renditions of fruits and vegetables that are on display in downtown Oakland.” This interview, these facts, Yoshimura’s life, are as fascinating to me as any sort of fiction. The watercolors are indeed beautiful – delicate, precise. I just bought “Watermelon” for my apartment.