Susan Sontag Long Fiction Analysis
Susan Sontag’s career as a novelist can be divided into two distinct phases. Early on, she produced work considered to be experimental in the European tradition of the New Novel or nouveau roman. Thus The Benefactor and Death Kit were interpreted as rejections of the American realist school. In other words, Sontag was not concerned so much with the manners and mores of contemporary society as she was with literature itself; that is, she pursued a form of narrative that was self-reflexive, turned back on itself, in which the narrator made the idea of “reality” itself problematic, a fiction. Perhaps the best example of her technique is to be found in Death Kit, in which Sontag leaves the reader wondering if Diddy really did murder a railroad worker or if the entire action of the novel is taking place in his mind. This doubt as to the reality of Diddy’s experiences is a way of exploring the radically subjective way people perceive reality. Similarly, The Benefactor focuses on the consciousness of its narrator, Hippolyte. To a great extent, he makes his world by fictionalizing it, transforming his friends and family into projections of his sensibility.
After publishing these two early novels and a similarly constructed collection of short stories, I, Etcetera, Sontag by her own account lost confidence in her ability to write fiction. Reviews of her novels had been mixed, and, aside from this lack of encouragement, it may be that the kind of fiction she was writing proved to be a dead end—that is, as soon as she established the radical subjectivity of her main characters and narrators, contriving an energetic and engaging narrative that would fully engage with the world seemed beyond her reach. Her novels were enervating rather than inspiriting.
After two decades of writing essays that were very much engaged with social and political reality, Sontag’s turn to historical fiction made sense—even though it was surprising given the nature of her earlier novels. As she noted in several interviews, history itself became an exciting study for her, and she came to appreciate how much ideas are shaped by historical context and not only by the sensibilities of those who hold those ideas. Thus The Volcano Lover and In America became the perfect vehicles for an exhilarating collation of radical individual perspectives and the forces of history.
In The Benefactor, Hippolyte attempts to live through his dreams, which are often nightmares in which he is dominated and tortured. His dreams are the art he makes of his life, and his desire is to make his life conform to the immediacy and sensuousness of dreams. Like Sontag’s idea of art, Hippolyte’s dreams are self-contained,...
(The entire section is 1151 words.)