Signs of the times
Hari Kunzru Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £16.99
"I am obsessed with shape-shifting," said the novelist Hari Kunzru - named by Granta as one of the 20 best young novelists working in Britain in 2003 - in an August interview. This comes as little surprise. His first novel, The Impressionist, features a character that continuously reinvents himself in a riot of metamorphosis.
The hero of his most recent work, My Revolutions, is also a man with more than one identity. At first we know him as Michael Frame, but it soon becomes clear that this isn't his real name. We meet Mike in his study, where he is watching workmen from a marquee company bolt together an aluminium frame on his lawn. The marquee has been ordered by his wife Miranda, a ditzy businesswoman with her own range of hippyish beauty products, in honour of his impending 50th birthday.
But Mike doesn't want to stick around for the party. Behaving as though in the grip of a rabid mid-life crisis, he stuffs some socks and a couple of shirts into a sports bag, picks up his passport (informing us that "'British citizen' is the only part that is true") and scarpers in Miranda's big silver BMW, heading for the nearest ferry terminal and beyond that for France.
Why the rush? It turns out, perhaps predictably, that Mike's marriage is foundering. His life has started to feel "circumscribed", "regulated", even "trapped". He hates Miranda's muddled New Age philosophy and the stupid hand-crafted knick-knacks, corn dollies and dream-catchers with which she has clogged up their house.
More fundamentally, though, Mike is petrified that his time as an activist in the 1960s and early 1970s, when he ended up as a member of an underground anti-capitalist terrorist cell, is about to be splashed across the tabloids, shattering the fragile alias under which he has successfully masqueraded for the previous two or so decades.
As he hotfoots it to France, he starts raking over his former life, when he went by his given name of Chris Carver. He became radicalised while at the London School of Economics, after he was sent to prison for marching on the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, along with a ragbag mob of students, junkies and East End mods, in protest against Vietnam in 1968.
On his release, he began living in a series of squalid squats and communes just off the Portobello Road, in the days when Notting Hill was full of peeling, dilapidated properties worlds apart from today's manicured mansions. It wasn't long before he fell in with two charismatic revolutionaries called Sean Ward and Anna Addison, who were both committed to bringing about the downfall of the "fascists" and "pigs" they believed were ruling Britain.
The rest of the novel dramatises the sect's descent into violence. Sean and Anna mastermind a widespread IRA-style guerrilla campaign that culminates in a bomb attack on the Post Office Tower in 1971. (The parallel with the home-grown terrorists who blew themselves up on the Tube two summers ago is clear.) Armed with this knowledge, one of Chris's associates turns up in later life to blackmail him.
There is much to admire in My Revolutions, not least its function as a meditation on how radical youth can turn into reactionary middle age. Kunzru has a gift for transmuting his research into something living, so the scuffling confrontations with authority feel very immediate.
In the main, the period texture is convincing, although occasionally Kunzru includes details that have become clichéd signifiers of the 1960s (such as the Sunday Times colour supplement or the smell of boiled cabbage that supposedly infested institutions up and down the land).
If I have a more substantial complaint, though, it is with the novel's presiding style. Kunzru's prose is crisp, clean, eminently consumable. His elegant sentences and polished paragraphs almost glint off the page. But this does not match his subject. The late-1960s subculture he describes is an antic, murky world of acid trips and chaotic sex ("You got used to falling asleep with people fucking right next to you, or rolling on to sleeping people as you fucked," recalls Mike about a commune in a former Victorian sweatshop in Hackney). The characters who populate this anything-goes twilight zone call themselves revolutionaries because they believe viscerally in the need for and possibility of radical change.
Yet where is the verbal excitement to reflect this? Where is the firecracker language to fit the firebrand politics conveyed in the book? Where is the stylistic revolution? "Me, I wanted to smash myself up, to get rid of structure altogether," Mike says about his angry twentysomething self. I'm not convinced that Kunzru feels the same. He writes in a fashion that is too orderly, too Apollonian. Which is fine, even admirable. But I couldn't help closing the book disappointed that one of the country's most fêted young writers hadn't come up with just a little more spark.
Alastair Sooke works for the Daily Telegraph