It took 9/11 to rip the vein of romanticism for left-wing terrorism out of the American brain. In previous decades, when the deaths were oceans away and inflicted for causes you could sympathize with, it was easier to fetishize Che Guevara, the IRA, and the Red Army Faction; to linger in the bright, unforgiving halls of Leninist revolutionary theory; and wonder whether you would've pulled the trigger on a czar if you'd had the chance. In those previous decades, My Revolutions, by British novelist Hari Kunzru, would have been read through the soft, romantic lens Kunzru describes so well: "We were laughing, strolling through the churchyard like conventionalized lovers, bathed in the yellow light that's now eternally the light of 1971, not just for me but for everyone who saw a film or looked at a magazine that year. Dazzle and softness and lens flare."
But Kunzru's characters aren't conventionalized lovers, and he doesn't let his novel linger in that yellow light for very long. The narrator and his comrade-lover aren't just strolling through a churchyard—they're trolling a graveyard, looking for identities to steal so they can go underground, join ranks with a group of Palestinian terrorists, and do things that would've horrified them just a few years before. Watching the characters slip from distracted, dope-smoking antiwar protesters to a "revolutionary cell" that holds long, bruising Criticism/Self-Criticism sessions conducted on LSD with a loaded pistol in the room is like watching a happy kid grow up into an adult disaster. But Kunzru doesn't romanticize a thing, not even their earlier, happier days. Whatever the virtues of their politics, they're spoiled brats, and all the more loathsome for the sting of recognition you'll feel when you meet them. Kunzru beautifully captures the hope and idiocy of youth and the bright, burning tragedy of inventing, then succumbing to, your own fundamentalism.
The novel bounces between one member's present—Chris Carver, who vanished, assumed the identify Michael Frame, and started a family—and his revolutionary past, with a short detour through Asia and a heroin addiction. My Revolutions isn't a comedy, though Kunzru can be funny, as in a scene where the hardened revolutionaries rob a lardy, obnoxious drug dealer named "Nice Mike" or a description of Frame's post- underground wife: "Miranda used to berate me for my lack of politics. She was always getting involved in causes: Amnesty, Free Tibet. She bought mugs and sweatshirts.... Once in a while she'd wonder aloud about going on a march." She has no idea her husband helped orchestrate the most famous terrorist bombing in London history.
Kunzru has set previous novels in Victorian England and Edwardian London (The Impressionist), and Silicon Valley (Transmission). Blissfully, My Revolutions doesn't exploit hippie/ mod England for nostalgia—it isn't an ideal, a memory bathed in the light of 1971. It's just another stage for one of his tragedies to unfold.