Amid the violent labor struggles of early-20th-century America, the wealthy son of a prominent San Francisco family immerses himself in theater and politics and obsesses over the distinction (or lack thereof) between performance and “real” life.
All the world’s a stage in Amdahl’s (The Intimidator Still Lives in Our Hearts, 2013, etc.) dense, sometimes confounding novel. The bulk of the action takes place in the run-up to America’s entry into World War I. Charles Minot, son of a mover and shaker with connections to Theodore Roosevelt, is staging a production of Henry James’ The American at his family’s theater. Self-serious and insecure, Charles becomes involved with Vera, one of his actresses, and through her dives headfirst into the gritty world of radical labor activists. After Charles’ affiliation with alleged anarchists is revealed in the press, his theater is bombed during a performance. Charles and Vera repair to the Midwest, where they consort with a colorful cast of unionists and their adversaries and revel in the performative nature of “reality.” This obsession with life as theater is provocative, but the idea is explored so often and so pointedly (“He was not free of the necessary falseness of reality, not free of the stage, but wished to be”) that it becomes challenging to invest in the characters. Amdahl’s command of language is powerful, but the emotional payoff isn’t commensurate with the intellectual investment required to appreciate this ambitious novel.
So immersed is Amdahl in the politics of the era and the philosophical questions at the novel’s core that he too often sacrifices clarity for concept.