The novel I’m working on takes its inspiration from a book of Marge Piercy’s that I read when I was still a teenager. Vida tells the story of a fugitive radical, still living underground, still committed to her activist principles. Vida’s story has stayed with me all these years like a kind of beacon and lodestar. I remember wondering again and again what it must have been like for a woman like Vida to commit to something that would take her away from everything else, what that sacrifice would evolve into over time. For much of the book, Vida is alone, adrift, lost and yet also so committed she does not regret her choices. Did Vida occupy a kind of limbo because of her choice to live underground? Yes. But did she also feel alive? Indeed. That pure act of walking away was the most powerful of all.
Vida inspired my own radical, Luna Flood, a young woman who arrives on campus in 1980 to join a fading group of activists, becoming part of a botched hold-up that scatters them all, sending her underground. In the course of writing the book, I reread Vida several years ago, surprised to find how differently I experienced the book as an adult. When I was a teenager, Vida’s choices seemed urgent, necessary, tragic. As an adult, I wondered why she held onto those beliefs when there was the opportunity at any moment to come above ground and rejoin the world. Vida felt stuck to me. How did a person hold fast when everything else had changed? Was Vida still relevant to anyone other than herself?
This reflection made me wonder about my Luna, and her own extreme choices. Vida is an abstraction written from a time and place where those abstractions made sense — the sixties and seventies, the idea of revolution made manifest, the truth of protest and activism provoking change. In this way, Vida the character still inspires, still holds relevance. But in other ways, Vida the novel has become sadly dated, in the same way that the sixties and seventies feel sadly dated. There is no avoiding nostalgia for the sixties, even as we know that period will never repeat itself again.
“There hasn’t been a novel I can think of that tells the story of a radical underground woman,” an editor told me once. “The challenge is to tell that story.” I wanted to tell him there has been, and it’s Vida. But then I realized that to tell that story in the present era, when my own protest is so different, even while my politics have not changed, the matter of my character, my version of Vida is trickier. Abstractions don’t suffice. Grand gestures need to make sense. Vida is a personal literary touchstone, sure, but Luna Flood has to become her own heroine, not just Vida redux.
Does this mean Luna’s struggle is not meant to be political but psychological? Is it a cop-out to make her problems existential? If Vida was an explosion, is it okay if Luna just burns?