The Big Chill yuppies thought they had hangovers from the ’60s. But even Kevin Costner’s corpse had a better time than Michael Frame, narrator of My Revolutions, Hari Kunzru’s casually brilliant novel about splintered selves, the perils of extreme politics, and the ghosts of the counterculture.
It’s 1998 when we meet Michael, a staid 50-year-old family man who works in a suburban bookshop, ”a refuge of slackness in the economically efficient high-street hell of our little market town.” His wife, Miranda, runs a cosmetics company called Bountessence that sells ”factory-made ‘natural botanicals”’ in tiny, recyclable bottles. Miranda is a recognizable type, the profoundly bourgeois woman who nonetheless embraces the trappings of an alternative lifestyle: ”Our house is filled with these objects — tribal, spiritual, hand-crafted little knick-knacks that are supposed to edge us nearer to Miranda’s wish fulfillment future of agrarian harmony,” Michael remarks, not without affection. He is content to play, as he puts it, Denis to her high-achieving Margaret Thatcher. His stepdaughter, Sam, summarily dismisses the notion that Michael had lovers before Miranda.
In fact, unbeknownst to either Miranda or Sam, back in the ’60s and ’70s, Michael was known as Chris Carver and had quite an abundant sex life. In addition to countless affairs with easygoing hippie chicks, he fell crazily in love with a glamorous terrorist, Anna Addison. Both Chris and Anna were members of a leftist group that protested the Vietnam War by blowing up buildings. Kunzru’s depiction of ’60s radicalism is clear-eyed and convincing; he presents the impulses that drove Chris and his cohorts as hypocritical, nihilistic, well-meaning, and powerfully erotic, all at once.
Decades later, after acquiring a new name, detaching himself from politics, and doing penance at a Buddhist monastery, Michael believes he has put his youthful crimes behind him. But while on vacation in France, he spots a woman who resembles Anna. Then, a sleazy old acquaintance, Miles Bridgeman, turns up and threatens to expose his true identity. Michael’s story — from middle-class kid to gentle peacenik to violent activist and full circle back to middle-class householder — unfolds in looping flashbacks as he desperately tries to outfox Miles and track down Anna.
Tracing the revolution of Michael’s character is an ambitious endeavor, and Kunzru pulls it off with panache. Admittedly, Michael’s saga may be a bit too tidily representative of his generation; his personality may lack some of the odd twists that would make him less of a figurehead; and Miranda may be a vapid ’90s stereotype. But My Revolutions misses being a masterpiece by only a hair. A?