It is a war, by everyone’s account. It is a war on terror, on culture, on freedom. As Michael Moore puts it, Wars on Nouns. For a war, everything seems pretty calm around here. It is raining in Portland, as it is want to do in winter. I am endeavoring to earn an honest dollar and to spend as much time as I can with the people that I love. I do regularly read the papers. It often agitates me, and my mutterings upset the dog.
Trouble is afoot. The situation feels horribly wrong. Or it should feel wrong. I don’t feel any different.
Way back when, there must have been a feeling to go with the times. When Joseph McCarthy was in the Senate. When Japanese-Americans were interned. When fascism bulldozed the world. Were not the righteous known for the lick of flame at the crowns of their heads? Could we not tell the cruxes by the crescendos playing in the background? And didn’t the good guys and the bad guys keep their appropriate uniforms on?
Jennifer Natalya Finks’s Burn (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2003) is a pointed parable for dangerous times. Set in 1953, it chronicles the collapse of an upstate New York collective, a communist enclave that is dwindling down to a puff of paranoia. Federal agents seem to be crouching at the periphery, just out of view.
The situation is tenuous. It is hard to tell what is real. No one can be trusted, not even Sylvie, the narrator. Sylvie is menopausal, a widow, and a communist. Long time members of the Sylvan Lake Colony jump ship and buy houses in New Jersey. The phones are tapped. Her sister is worried about her. It is a bad time all around.
Simon shows up suitably symbolic – one morning he is naked in her garden, pissing on her tomatoes. Sylvie takes the mute pubescent Simon into her house and soon enough into her bed, despite the fact that she suspects Simon is a robot sent to spy upon her.
Fink writes Sylvie, her narrator, in a brilliantly annoying manner. Her unreliability is underscored by her grating personality. She sings-songs spontaneous rhymes, she bumbles the ludicrous set of codewords meant to disinform the spooks that are tapping her phone. Our narrator is a bit of a doofus. Add two cups Holden Caufield.
So, when the whopper-filled plot starts to take hold …the mute teen is making love with the 50-something communist and she thinks that he is a robot and that there are men in gray suits stalking her colony… the reader’s relationship to Sylvie becomes distended. You want to discount her reportage.
As the commune dissolves, her only desire is to own her house, the bourgeoisie bones of the worker’s paradise. Beyond that, she spends her time reminiscing to Simon.
Sylvie recounts to Simon the story of a 1945 concert in Peekskill, New York. Angry locals assaulted the leftists that collected to hear Paul Robeson sing. They hurled rocks at the departing crowd, sending scores to the hospital. Sylvie was there, dressed in a flashy business suit and matching fedora. The rural, gentile lower class attacked the largely Jewish and black urban lower class. In this memory, she recalls the inevitability of the failure of The Cause. “We were fighting for the sake of fighting,” she recalls.
Perhaps that is why I remain here, trying to earn a dollar, and that is why Sylvie is a bourgeoisie hypocrite. She and I know that it is the most efficacious act. That the Correct, the True, and the Right are not only hopelessly outnumbered, They are also infantile. The heroes are acting out their own simplistic fantasies. Their fate is martyrdom if they are lucky. Irrelevance and mockery is more likely.
Upstate New York was actually populated by “worker’s paradises” in the fifties. Like Burn’s mythical Sylvan Lake, they were started by communists and unionists from New York City. The anxiety was real. The desire for change was real.
I lust for change today. I wish that the news was better. I wish the accused, even the vile, had the luxury of a trial and a sentence. I wish I wasn’t swimming in an oil economy. I wish that my Pottery Barn order would be here soon. The world in the papers is sick-mad. I want a better hardwood floor cleaning product.
Fink’s Burn sneaks into the robes of relevance. It is difficult to feel enjoined by the narration. In her first novel, Fink risks an unreliable narrator. As if to compensate, Fink keeps the story well-paced and the writing fleshy and imagistic. However unhelpful Sylvie is as a guide, the threads of story keep the reader involved.
Burn never rescues the reader from uncertainty. Sylvie is doomed and so is the cause that carried her along. I hope that this grating parable is not prophetic.
Ms. Fink’s book is available for purchase at Powell’s.