Review of Christopher Sorrentino’s novel Trance; appeared in the Toronto Star in summer 2005.
It’s been more than three decades since a group of California far-left radicals calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and then threatened, bullied, and abused her until she joined their cause. But the story continues to haunt us – perhaps because the SLA was in the news again a couple of years ago, when several of its members finally went to prison for a 1975 murder, or perhaps because the subject of urban terrorism in America has acquired a fresh urgency lately.
Whatever the reason, Hearst and her erstwhile comrades keep turning up in the culture. Two years ago Susan Choi published American Woman, an excellent novel based on the summer that Hearst and three other fugitives spent hiding out in a rural cottage. Early this year PBS aired a fresh documentary film about the case called Guerilla. Even comedian Margaret Cho has borrowed from Hearst lore for the title and cover of her upcoming book, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight.
And now here is Christopher Sorrentino’s second novel, Trance, based on Hearst’s fugitive days. It’s an ungainly but gripping piece of work – a postmodern experiment that reads like a thriller.
Sorrentino has stuck closely to real-life characters and events, and you can hardly blame him: the true story is so outlandish, crowded, and eventful that the novelist’s task is not to embellish but to simplify. The SLA came together in Berkeley, made up of white upper-middle-class college students or grads and led by an escaped black convict, Donald DeFreeze. Though they numbered less than a dozen, they believed they were about to incite a revolution and overthrow the American government, restoring power to “the People.” What they lacked in political sophistication or strategic sense they made up for in stockpiles of weaponry and in long-winded communiques to the press; their official slogan was the punchy “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”
After murdering a popular Oakland school superintendant to no apparent political purpose, the SLA made national news by kidnapping 19-year-old Hearst in 1974. Two months later, she announced to the world that she’d joined her captors and rechristened herself Tania, and shortly afterward was caught on film robbing a bank with her comrades. The SLA then relocated to Los Angeles, where the police soon found and cornered the cadre; six members, including DeFreeze, died in the resulting shootout.
Circumstance had separated Hearst from the group the day before, along with two other members, Bill and Emily Harris, and now the three of them fled back to Berkeley. Sympathetic acquaintances – including a sportswriter who dreamed of an SLA-related book deal – spirited them to the Pennsylvania countryside, where they hid out for several months along with another wanted radical. Eventually, they returned to the Bay area to start a “second team” SLA; bombings and bank robberies followed before Hearst and the Harrises were found and arrested, more than a year and a half after the kidnapping.
Like any novel dealing with familiar real-life scenarios, Trance must navigate an uneasy relationship between invention and fact. Sorrentino renames the Hearst character “Alice Galton,” for example, but still uses her Tania alias. The Harrises are likewise given pseudonyms, but are mostly identified by their real-life noms de guerre, Teko and Yolanda. Some characters, like the dead SLA members, bear their real names, while others don’t, even when their models are obvious. These are small decisions, but they reflect Sorrentino’s overall strategy of highlighting the novel’s relationship to the historical record – both the conflicts and the confluences.
Trance picks up the story in L.A., at the point when Tania, Teko, and Yolanda are separated from the rest of the SLA while on a supply run. Teko is spotted shoplifting at a sporting goods store, and Tania shoots out the storefront windows to scatter the security guards. The three revolutionaries then embark on a series of carjackings, bickering about what to do next and how to hook up with their comrades. Meanwhile, DeFreeze leads the rest of the cadre to a new safehouse, where the L.A. police close in around them.
Sorrentino’s work in this section sets the pace for the rest of the novel with suspenseful storytelling, a strong ear for dialogue, and wry situational humour. American Woman was sombre, but Trance finds the comedy in the material – much of it at the vainglorious Teko’s expense – without trivializing the impact of the SLA’s idiocies and crimes.
If there’s one disappointment, it’s that Sorrentino allows the public record to set the narrative agenda so rigidly. Nearly all of the events in Trance, even many tiny details, are drawn from existing accounts. The underreported aspects of the SLA case, such as the formation and earliest days of the cadre, would seem to be ripe for fictionalizing, but they’re ignored here. Even the last hours of the Los Angeles safehouse siege are related not from the point of view of the doomed SLA soldiers, but from that of Tania, watching events unfold on a motel room TV.
Not that the book is unimaginative. Rather, the fictionalizing comes in textures, in tangled skeins of motivation as we leave and return to various characters’ minds. Like Hank Galton, Tania’s father, befuddled by helpless love and concern; Guy Mock, the fugitives’ sportswriter friend, balancing sympathy, skepticism, and self-interest; and Joan Shimada, a Japanese-American radical who falls into the SLA ambit but is openly scornful of their pretensions.
All of them orbit the central figure of Tania. To Sorrentino’s credit, he doesn’t pander to the question that launched a criminal trial and a thousand op-ed pieces in the 1970s: that of whether Tania was a coerced victim or a willing accomplice. In fact, that angle is barely acknowledged in the novel, which presents a Tania who more or less believes she’s acting freely (but still might not be, anyway). More interesting are the dynamics between Tania and the other revolutionaries, and her growing friendship with Joan Shimada.
There’s a huge cast of background characters to deal with, too, and Sorrentino gives spark to them all with judicious use of anecdotes and minor details, as when one SLA soldier recalls an argument at her sister’s “bourgeois” wedding. Most impressively, even the briefest cameos don’t just solidify our conception of the character for the sake of expediency – rather, they suggest a rich and real life lived off the page.
Indeed, for such a long and sprawling book, the major tension that emerges is between what’s included and what’s not. Although Tania’s fugitive exploits provide a narrative throughline – Trance essentially ends with her arrest – that narrative is full of tangents, tone shifts, multiple perspectives, and stylistic experiments. At one point, Sorrentino even uses concrete poetry to represent a shooting victim’s last, jumbled thoughts. In the absence of a classically seamless structure and consistent point-of-view, the overall form of the story comes to seem arbitrary: we may wonder, for example, why we turn to Lydia Galton, Tania’s mother, so late in the action. It’s fitting that in a novel so entwined with the historical record, the reader is invited to speculate on what’s been left out, and on how further additions and subtractions would change our understanding of the play and its players. A risky move, but it’s one that Sorrentino can afford to take – after all, what’s been left in Trance is plenty satisfying.