I tend to read streaks of related books. They can be related by author or by subject. I think everybody reads streaks by author. Right now I’m in the middle of a Ward Just streak and a Howard Swiggett streak. (I hope to write an essay about Swiggett someday.)
I really like streaks by subject. Last year, doing research for a book I’ve been writing, I read four novels and one play about intellectual mentors who lead their protégés to commit crimes and/or get themselves killed. (The best of these is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.) This intersects with another streak about boarding schools and colleges.
My latest streak is about radicals, terrorists and extreme altruists. The first book was Ward Just’s The American Ambassador, and I’m planning to read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Marge Piercy’s Vida, as well as a non-fiction work about Theodore Kaczynski.
I just finished the second in this streak, a novel entitled The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez.
I loved this novel. It tells the story of three women starting in 1968: Georgette, the narrator, who is looking for love; Ann, Georgette’s roommate at Barnard, who is a stone radical; and Solange, George’s sister, who runs away from their squalid home and abusive mother at the age of 14, embarking on a physical and spiritual odyssey. In these three women we have three of the paradigmatic types of young females of the era: Cosmo girl, radical and hippie. (All we’re missing is a women’s libber.)
It doesn’t have a lot of plot and it’s not told in perfect chronological order. It’s more like a new friend telling you about herself, partly in order, partly with vignettes strung together by association and partly with events revealed only when she feels she can reveal them. One Amazon reviewer labeled this narrative “stream of consciousness.” I generally hate stream of consciousness story telling, and I easily followed the logical and emotional thread of Georgette’s account, so that was not a problem for me. It’s really an imagined memoir.
I’m trying not to give away more than is necessary to communicate the set-up of the story, but since the jacket copy refers to the central event of the story in vague terms, so I feel that my doing so as well does not constitute a true spoiler. Ann does something very violent which changes her life and several lives around her. Nunez is brilliant in creating a situation of perfect ambiguity, in which Ann’s action can be seen as either justified or irresponsible, depending on your premises (rather like Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th). This action superbly integrates Ann’s character, the political beliefs of the people involved, and the tenor of the times. We see this action from the perspectives of quite a few people in the story and it is a good example of the starkly different interpretations people can have of an event.
The novel focuses mostly on 1968 – 1978, but it covers events since then as well, alluding obliquely at the story’s end to 9/11. I really enjoyed following up on the story’s characters. We’re so used to seeing a 1960s radical or hippie frozen in time, forever 20 years old, that we forget that such people grow and change – or fail to grow and thus destroy themselves.
Please do not get the idea that this novel is a nostalgic tale of those “far out” times. It’s not. While we view the characters through Georgette’s generally sympathetic eyes, we are frankly shown the consequences of their beliefs and actions, and many of those consequences are brutal. At the same time, the novel does not shy away from showing how unpleasant being poor and/or black in America can be. I could imagine that both a hard-core liberal and a hard-core conservative could enjoy this book if they were honest with themselves, because it is perfumed by the air of truth.
In some novels by and about women – Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is frequently alleged to be an example – men come off rather badly. At first this seems to be true of The Last of Her Kind, which had not one but two rapists, various drug dealers and Mick Jagger among its characters. But some of the minor men, though they seem like losers, are genuinely nice guys. And just when you thought there were no wonderful men in Nunez’ world, we encounter one: decent, loving, cultured, loyal. And we see him grow.
Georgette is a narrator who is nice to spend time with. She may not be some people’s idea of ambitious, but she is earnest, a good observer and well read. She drops in interesting references.
One of these references is to a French philosopher named Simone Weil (1909 – 1943). When some in the press compare Ann to Patricia Hearst, Georgette compares her to Weil. Weil was a hard-core altruist. When she was six years old and heard that the soldiers fighting in WWI had no sugar, she refused to eat any herself. During WWII she basically starved herself to death in sympathy to citizens in occupied France living on meager rations. In between she taught Greek classics, became sympathetic to Roman Catholicism without being baptized (she came from a family of agnostic Jews), and expounded mystical ideas on God, the self, the void, beauty, etc.
Weil was definitely anti-materialist. She gave away most of her salary. She often slept on the floor. She probably died a virgin, because, although an affectionate person, she did not like to be touched. T. S. Eliot likened her to a saint, and she had a considerable influence on both existentialist and Catholic thought in the decades after her death (although that influence has waned since the 1970s).
Weil and Ann from the novel are each in some sense “the last of her kind.” Both are altruists all the way down, although Ann has sex and is an atheist. Ann is definitely a lot angrier than Weil, who could be beatific in her enraptured contemplation of God.
Perhaps Ann has more in common with Bill North, Jr., the terrorist in The American Ambassador. Both have nothing but contempt for their parents. Like Bill, Ann does not call her parents Mom and Dad, but Sophie and Turner. Both have no sympathy for those who do not share their views. There is a slight difference between them in that Ann generally thinks it possible to make a difference working from within the system, while Bill is so alienated from bourgeois capitalism that he sees kidnapping, bombs and murder as necessary and deserved. Simone Weil, from what I’ve read so far, was not a violent or hateful person. She did try to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but she was so near-sighted and such a bad shot that no one would let her get near a gun!
I am trying to build up a portrait of the radical/terrorist/altruist type. What I am seeing so far is that they all belong to what I call the Cult of Suffering, by which I mean the intellectual-emotional position that the suffering of others should be our primary fixation in life, while the health and happiness of the fortunate (including ourselves) is not important and may even be a sign of exploitation. I am sure there are commonalities that I do not have enough examples of to identify yet. I don’t think I see what Ayn Rand called “the hatred of the good for being the good,” but the jury is still out. It’s a little risky to use fictional examples in my sample, but I feel they can illuminate the often tangled and diffuse mass of information surrounding real figures.
I think such a study – which I admit I am carrying out unsystematically – could be valuable in understanding the operation of morality and in figuring out how we can have a stable society. Besides, it’s interesting!
I invite you to share any insight you have on these subjects or any book or movie recommendations.