In America

By Susan Sontag
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buy Now This book is on reading list for January 2012

Why We Like This Book

How far beneath the surface of a novel does the reader have to plunge to find its meaning? Susan Sontag, preeminent woman of 20th century letters, says not far at all. In fact, she rails against excavating fiction and writes, “The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys: it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text…To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world–in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’”

If we agree with Sontag, then how is a smart woman and  a competent reader to explore a novel, understand its meanings, discuss its qualities, and form judgments about its style and content, without excavating it?

This is a question we often face in book club conversations when it becomes easy to drift from the novel and impose our own interpretations.

Let’s approach this challenge through one of Sontag’s own novels, In America, which we are now reading with our book clubs. In America, is not only about an actress and her art form but also the attitudes of the new, burgeoning “America.” Actually, it is only in America that our Maryna could be both an actress in her life and on the stage.

First, Sontag delights us with her remarks about America, and these observations require no interpretation:

  • In America no one could refuse the often unlovely imperatives of progress.
  • I give thanks to America, a country insane enough to declare the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right.
  • The American is someone who is always leaving everything behind.
  • America never disappoints.
  • What is paramount in America is the personal calendar, the personal journey.My  birthday, my life, my happiness.  (Indeed, this is the perfect creed for Maryna and why she loves America.)
  • Yes, I am becoming quite American: I would much prefer to have  a happy ending.
Second, and more complex, is understanding the main characters.  Maryna, Bogdan, and Ryszard, all seek to define themselves and struggle with authenticity. The only one who seems to conquer this quest is Maryna, since she is unapologetic about her choices. However, this is where the problem of ‘excavation’ arises. How much of Bogdan’s repressed sexuality are we supposed to factor into our understanding of his behavior? And, with Ryszard (the writer), are we to believe he is ‘living’ or ‘observing’ to gather material for his work?
This blogger enjoys the questions and plays with the answers. In the end, there is only one thing to say: It is what it is!

Discussion Questions

  1. Is Maryna a liberated woman? Is she free to enact her own desires and design her destiny?  How do the men in her life serve her? Is she, in any way, dependent on them for success?
  2. Does Maryna have an authentic persona? Does she ‘know’ when she is acting? What passages in the text provide clues for this answer? And, how does the ending factor into this?
  3. What elements of sexuality are explored in this novel? Is there a different sense of sexual freedom in America than in Poland? How does Bogdan deal with his homosexual urges? Does  his predisposition make it easier for Maryna to do what she wants?
  4. Do you believe that the group was committed to the success of the commune? Or was this an adventure to ‘take up their borrowed peasant life?”
  5. Is there religious freedom in America? If so, what is the point of the evangelists and their condemnation of Maryna’s roles?
  6. Is Ryszard  really in love with Maryna or just seeking content for his writing? Look at how he observing’ to gather material for his work? Consider his statement:  A writer is never, need never be, bored—fortunate aptitude!”


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