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In America

By Susan Sontag

Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Current Publisher
: Picador (Macmillan)

Jessica Hicks writes:

Three people are famous for discussing fame: David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Susan Sontag. Sontag's essays, film theory, and fiction have made popular culture a bona fide academic study. I have always admired her in-your-face work for its unwavering honesty. Her final novel, In America, is more than just another coming-of-age story; it is a critique of celebrity and a celebration of Sontag's ability to move seamlessly between essays, criticism, and fiction.

In America is admired for the same reason it is disparaged. The novel is a coming-of-age tale whose protagonist never really develops. This is not because Sontag is a poor writer; rather, she is displaying the hollow, self-obsessed nature of celebrity. Although set in the nineteenth century, In America could just as easily be describing the trivial nature of Hollywood celebrity today. Of course, it is easy to see why an entire novel about a shallow actress can be, frankly, annoying, but humans are innately self-preserving, self-involved creatures. Perhaps more than anyone else, celebrities absolutely must be egotistical in order to preserve their careers. In America not only showcases this negative side of fame; it also shows the reader that he or she is supporting the frivolous narcissism of celebrity.

Jessica Hicks is a graduate student in the Media Studies program at The New School and is a Media Marketing Intern at Lion Brand Yarn Company.

 Elizabeth Yale writes:

"You are whatever you think you are, Ryszard said to himself. Whatever you dare think you are. And to be free to think yourself something you're not (not yet), something better than what you areisn't that the true freedom promised by the country to which he was journeying?”

I first read Susan Sontag’s In America as I was preparing to leave home and move across the country to New York City.  Seduced by the idealism that compelled Maryna Zalezowski and her Polish émigré companions from Warsaw to the mountains of California, I too hoped to re-create myself as something grander in New York (in my “America”).  In the years since, very much the same person I have always been, I have often revisited this quintessentially American notion that you can be whoever and whatever you want to be, never quite being able to decide for myself whether this belief that we can change our identities through sheer will power is profoundly hopeful or completely delusional. 

In America is the story of a womana divaand of the idea that we create ourselves by rebelling against our fate.  But of the idealistic immigrants in Sontag’s story, it is ultimately only the actressthe paragon of mutabilitywho truly achieves this self-actualized transformation.  For the others, shades of their former selves inexorably seep through.  The actress, practiced in performance, can achieve what the rest of us cannot because her life transpires on the stage.  Maryna or Marina, the diva has no singular self; she transforms with each rise and fall of the curtain, her identity a costume she dons before every performance.  The experience of reading In America is of having an intimate, visceral encounter with an actress in possession of this transformative power, of being seduced by her elusive charisma, and ultimately of being eluded by her.   

Like much of Sontag’s work, In America is a story about storytelling, about the art of (mis)representation, and of performance.  In her review in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella described the intricate complexity of In America as a “cat’s cradle of meanings,” a phrase I have found more apropos to describe my feelings toward this book than any words of my own.  In America is as unsettling as it is beautiful, disquieting but tremendously thought-provoking, and perhaps most importantly, a fantastic read.

Elizabeth Yale works in media and entertainment at @radical.media and holds a BA in cinema and anthropology from Columbia University.


ISBN: 9780312273200

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Charles Baxter for The Feast of Love
  • Alan Lightman for The Diagnosis
  • Joyce Carol Oates for Blonde
  • Francine Prose for Blue Angel

Fiction Judges that Year:

Ron Hansen, Breena Clarke, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, David Guterson, A.M. Homes

The Year in Literature:  

  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 
  • Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

After teaching philosophy and theology in her twenties, Susan Sontag decided to devote herself full time to writing. At age 30, she published her first book, an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963). Her short story, "The Way We Live Now," was published in The New Yorker in 1986 and was very well received. She later achieved popular success as a best-selling novelist with The Volcano Lover (1992), and at age 67, published her final novel, In America (2000).

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