This incisive novel is an often disturbing yet important portrayal of a time when songs of revolution filled the consciousness of young people in the 1960s - in this case in London, the Vietnam War raging, poverty rising and disaster endemic as a youth culture reacts to years of government repression.
All this is in the past for Michael Frame, whose wife, Miranda, has made frantic preparations for his fiftieth birthday party, their marriage lately frayed by disagreements and lapsed communication. Miranda has no way of knowing that Mike’s militant past has risen as ashes from the dead, a former “friend”, Miles, arriving unexpectedly with particular demands.
Ensconced in his new life, Michael is trapped, his misdirected youth no more than a memory. Chris Carver, Miles calls him, not Mike Frame, but Chris who spent restless revolutionary years with a band of raging dissidents whose early naiveté turned more deadly by the year, from nonviolence to violence.
Rather than contrast past with present, the author incorporates all in a novel that is filled with the urgency of disclosure and Chris’s increasing desperation to save at least some remnant of the new life he has fashioned. The result is a long march from the actions of youth to the consequences of deeds enacted against the government.
On a recent holiday with Miranda, Mike/Chris recognizes a face from his college days, a woman with whom he was intimately connected and believed was killed in a protest bombing. Now it all comes back in a rush as Chris scrambles for purchase. Chapter after chapter reveals the seductive years of youthful hubris and rebellion: the heady rush of ideas, the liberal use of drugs, a social agenda that disdains ownership, a calling to arms with the best of intentions, random London-based anarchists in search of noble causes.
Soon the rebels are energized by their actions, feeding on the “experience of transgression,” fetishizing nonviolence until even violence is acceptable in furthering a cause. By the time Chris embraces family life and its predictable rituals, he doesn’t have the energy to run again, realizing they haven’t changed anything, just “piling up horror,” Chris “a compulsive believer, always mistaking my ideas for the world.”
Kunzru’s account of Chris’s reckoning is brutal, every detail of his revolutionary fervor exposed, an exploration of youthful idealism run aground by a self-defining counterculture driven by a select few. Homeless, rootless, the revolutionaries do their damage; some die, while others are absorbed by the future, like Chris.
Time folds upon itself as the present is consumed by a weighty past, by the consequences of calculated violence. Bringing the radical ‘60s to life with a vengeance, the author is unsparing. The glory days are long gone, the romance of revolution smoldering, Chris forced to face a reconfigured future.