Susan Sontag’s reputation is based primarily on her essays on modern culture and cultural heroes, but her first book, The Benefactor (1963), was a novel. She continued to publish fiction throughout her career. In her second novel, Death Kit (1967), a collection of stories called I, Etcetera (1978), and several uncollected stories published in the 1980’s, she has been engaged in an ongoing effort to transform the passion and intelligence she has brought to her appreciations of other artists into creative achievements of her own.
For nearly thirty years, the common critical opinion has been that with a few exceptions—especially, “The Way We Live Now” (1987), an extraordinarily subtle and highly praised story about acquired immune deficiency syndrome—she has not succeeded in this effort. Her fiction has been judged as too willed, too experimental, too claustrophobic, and too self-conscious an expression of the aesthetic positions she has taken in her essays. Sontag, however, never has been very concerned with common critical opinion, about her work or anything else, and writing fiction is clearly what she has always most wanted to do. As her reputation as an essayist has grown, she has never stopped developing her own fictional voice, and periodically she even has expressed her desire to stop writing essays completely in order to devote herself to writing fiction full-time.
Until now, she has been prohibited from doing so by her habitual impulse to respond to things that excite, interest, or challenge her by writing about them and by her status as a free-lance intellectual who has depended solely on her writing for her livelihood. The MacArthur Fellowship she received in 1990, the four-book contract she signed with her publisher, and the surprising best-seller status of The Volcano Lover would seem to have changed her circumstances enough that her first novel in twenty-five years should be seen as more than just another book: It is also a turning point that suggests what will come in the next phase of her career. On the evidence of The Volcano Lover, readers can expect a fiction quite different from her earlier novels, yet recog- nizably hers—a fiction that combines a newfound interest in realistic description and a capacity to engage the external world and explore other lives that The Benefactor and Death Kit sorely lacked with the wide-ranging intellect, the literary and cultural allusiveness, and the flair for aphorism that her best essays have always displayed.
The Volcano Lover is the result of two decades of self-criticism and largely unpublished fictional experiments, through which Sontag has sought to move beyond the style and perspectives of her earlier work to another kind of fiction. “I want to write fiction which is not solipsistic,” she told Charles Ruas in 1982, “in which there is a real world, but I’m not drawn to the conventions of realism.” A lot of her fiction, she went on to say, has focused on “different ways of expressing distress, perplexity, and alienation. It assumes too much about the world, and devalues the world in a certain way. One is always inside a head, but I think I can get the world into that head now.” When The Volcano Loverappeared, she told Leslie Garis that she was “glad to be free of the kind of one-note depressiveness that is so characteristic of contemporary fiction. I don’t want to express alienation. It isn’t what I feel. I’m interested in various forms of passionate engagement.”
Being “inside a head”—and an obsessed, alienated, depressed, distorting, dream-driven head at that—certainly is an apt description of the experience of reading The Benefactor or Death Kit. Both novels have their strengths and virtues as fictional experiments, but neither is remembered for its “passionate engagement” with anything but the formal possibilities of the genre and its narrator’s consciousness. Sontag’s new novel, which overflows with the passions of its author and its characters, clearly is something else entirely. The distance she has traveled since Death Kit is obvious before a reader even opens The Volcano Lover: in the lush painting of Mount Vesuvius erupting before observers dressed in the clothing of an earlier age on the colorful jacket of a book titled in bright red letters; in the jacket’s photo by Annie Liebowitz of Sontag...