Whatever Sontag’s new embrace of reality, the person who wrote the essays is still in attendance, with the result that the realism of In America is overlaid with plenty of formalism. The narrative technique changes from chapter to chapter … In America is endlessly self-aware. It is Sontag speaking, as she spoke to us all those years in the essays. Hence the book’s tone, bright, silvery, bracing—tinkling at times. We do not lose ourselves in Maryna; we hover a little above her … What is wonderful about the book is exactly this counterpoint of novelist and essayist, of innocence and knowingness. From the knowingness comes another excellence of In America, its cat’s cradle of meanings.
In America is a picaresque fable, a historical tragicomedy. The story revolves around a Polish actress, Maryna Zalezowska. More than an actress, she is a national symbol for the triply besieged and conquered Poland, a symbol of patriotism, of seriousness, of achievement on a grand scale in the arts … [Sontag] is giving us, in fiction, the history of the loss that led to irony and fragmentation, the death of so much that could formerly be called culture, and she bravely attempts a journey beyond that loss. Sontag has managed to structure a paradox – call it hopeful inconsolability or optimistic pessimism – a belief that the destruction of our ideals and our long-lost innocence can still be narrated, that there is still a story to be told about us and about how we came to be the way we are or to see.
The novel offers little in the way of conflict. To support her family, Maryna moves to San Francisco and returns to the stage under the easier-to-swallow name Madame Marina Zalenska. At this point in the story, some novelists might choose to focus on her insecurities about reviving her abandoned career. But this heroine is too steely to admit such doubt … Sontag's prose here is lithe, playful: in spite of the listless plot, this book has flow. Indeed, In America reads so smoothly that one could almost accuse Sontag of placing too few demands on her readers. Stimulating ideas, as usual, lurk around every corner. But they tend to arrive pre-interpreted … Sentence by sentence, scene to scene, the writing in In America is utterly nimble. It's the ideas, somehow, that lag behind.
The scope of the tale is vast, and there is a largesse in the telling, the sheer happiness of art. But In America is also an intimate portrait of a willful woman who, like the liner which brings her to America, trails a great wake behind her … The book's form and theme are elegantly joined. Of all the many American dreams – land, space, streets paved with gold – the one that lures Sontag's characters is liberation from the past, especially tragic and demanding in Poland's case, and the creation of a new self … Sontag uses the full arsenal of narrative devices – standard third-person omniscience, diaries, letters, snatches of dialogue, monologues both interior and spoken aloud – to reconstruct Modjeska as Maryna Zalenska, the heroine.
Sontag's latest novel, In America, is another historical production about a woman caught in a love triangle between her husband and lover, but it's an altogether more desultory – and unsatisfying – performance. Despite a playful preface that introduces the author as a postmodernist commentator on the story, the novel quickly devolves into a banal, flat-footed narrative that chronicles the characters' exploits through letters, journals and corny, omniscient voice-overs … Although Sontag does a convincing job of depicting Maryna's restless nature and ‘penchant for exertion,’ she too often resorts to explaining her behavior in terms of tired cliches about actresses and acting … [Sontag], who in essay after essay celebrated an art of complexity and ambiguity, gives us numbingly familiar comparisons of Europe and America delivered in stark, uninflected tones.
The novel opens with a daring, almost mystical chapter in which Sontag imagines herself conceiving of her characters at a lavish dinner in Russian-occupied Poland in 1875. It's like watching a projectionist trying to bring the film into focus. This kind of self-referential, post-modern trick could be annoying, but Sontag is a brilliant writer who doesn't gauge her intelligence by how confused she can make her audience … Maryna hopes to reincarnate her former theatrical glory. But she discovers painfully that the costs and rewards of being a great European actress are not the same as being an American celebrity. The result is a fascinating exploration of what's real in a culture that preaches authenticity but worships artificiality … Sontag is so comfortable spinning these big ideas through the details of her novel that they never seem heavy or intrusive. In In America we discover the country as the curtain rises on the modern age.
If this was a first novel by a literary unknown it would have been lucky to make it into print. What makes In America an object of interest is less its page-turning readability than its significance as the latest move in Susan Sontag's brilliant career … In America is lush, multi-voiced, woman-centred and densely historical. It is also, if one looks for glimpses and hints, one of the more personal of Sontag's many books … There are huge difficulties in coming to terms with In America. Few readers outside the Polish émigré community will know where it is coming from...for those readers who are serious about In America (and I suspect the author would want no others), some preliminary study of Modjeska's 1910 autobiography, Memories and Impressions, is mandatory.
In America, inspired by the life of Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska (who went by Modjeska in America), is packed with details about trans-Atlantic and trans-American travel, and about post-Civil War America. We walk the streets of New York City teeming with immigrants, hear the narrowness and rare generosity of Americans, see the marvels of modernity at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and visit the California that once was … Like most experimental novels, In America is also about the act of novel writing, and the book itself tells us how to read it. Susan Sontag's intellect won't allow her dishonesty here, and much of what we're told is disheartening to readers looking for a story … Readers who make it through the fast-forward summary (apparently, alas, a catalog of leftover research) of Chapter 8 to the last chapter won't find a resolution of Maryna's story or of the many questions the text poses.
In America bears a strong family resemblance to The Volcano Lover – and again sadly falls short … If Ms. Sontag’s idea was to evoke the anomie and alienation of the expatriate by letting the narrative wander, listless and flat, she succeeded … In America will be prized for its brains, not its sex appeal (Maryna, hesitating on the brink of adultery, talks of ‘the emperor, mind’). Just as The Volcano Lover doubled as a treatise on collecting, the new novel teems with opinion on two great topics: America and acting.
Sontag crafts a novel of ideas in which real figures from the past enact their lives against an assiduously researched, almost cinematically vivid background … Exemplary at imagining an actor's needs, impulses and sources of inspiration, Sontag also conveys the theatrical world of the time (East Lynne was the most popular play; Sarah Bernhardt reigned in Paris) almost palpably. There are few dramatic peaks and valleys in Maryna's story, but the historical backdrop – with pithy and evocative descriptions of American cities at the turn of the last century, cameo portraits of salty frontier types, and snippets of Western lore – supplies the vigor.