By Alice Mattison
401 pp. Pegasus Books. $25.95.
Alice Mattison’s novels often revolve around an intense friendship between women in a leftish milieu. So does her latest, which offers many of the pleasures of those earlier works. A careful observer of gesture and language, Mattison writes warmly about her characters. The inhabitants of this novel all struggle to live ethical lives. Yet “Conscience” raises questions about itself as well as about what’s right.
At the heart of the narrative is an imaginary 1980 novel called “Bright Morning of Pain.” In that book, as well as in the “real world” of “Conscience,” Helen Weinstein, a morally intense antiwar activist (fictionalized as Hannah Cohen), is killed while participating in a bank robbery.
The author of “Bright Morning of Pain,” who knew but was not close to Helen or her best friend, Olive Grossman, drew on Olive’s relationship with Helen in writing the book. And she presented Joshua Griffin, known as Griff and now Olive’s husband, as a black activist called Harry, who caused Hannah to embrace violence because he carried a gun and used it against a policeman who was savagely beating a demonstrator.
Olive, a writer and editor, has been commissioned to write an essay to accompany the book’s reissue. Griff, whose conscience leads him to feel continuing guilt about his actions during the 1960s and his influence on Helen, accidentally leaves her copy in the office of Jean Argos, the director of a New Haven drop-in center for the homeless whose board Griff leads. Thus yet another character who strives to adhere to a principled life is drawn into the larger novel to talk about “Bright Morning of Pain.”
And talk they do, incessantly. One of their topics is whether fiction, if set in a recognizable historical time, must be factually accurate. No, Olive argues. “Fiction establishes its own truth.” The novel that draws on Helen’s past is, she insists, “a work of the imagination.”
Should that prevent a reviewer from pointing out that “Conscience” isn’t always historically accurate? Mattison implies, for example, that during the 1968 rebellion, white Columbia students had little interest in the issue of the gym the university proposed to build in Morningside Park, which many in Harlem denounced as segregated: “Black students — and Helen — marched against the gymnasium.” This was not the case; the march on the gym on April 23 included many white students. And abortion was not “still illegal” in New York when Olive and Griff married in 1972; the state had legalized it in 1970. Three people, not two, died in the explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse in March 1970. “I object to historical errors,” Griff says. So do I, though Olive would disagree.
More important, the novel’s premise — that Griff’s example gave Helen permission to turn to violence, leading to guilt that shadowed the rest of his life, and that the appearance in “Bright Morning of Pain” of a character based on Griff damaged his marriage to Olive — misinterprets the radical politics of the 1960s.
“Bright Morning of Pain” turned Helen’s story into a love triangle; Olive complains that “the war itself was missing from the book” and that it deprived Helen of the seriousness of her crime when “all Helen had was that crime.” But as a character, Helen seems to have had no political analysis. She is sensitive: As a high school student in 1965, she is unable to eat when she learns that a protester has immolated himself. When she hears about the My Lai massacre she takes to her bed and tells Olive, “I want to die.” She is judgmental about bourgeois privilege and consumerism, but her only serious political discussion with Olive is an abstract discourse about creation and destruction inspired by drawings in the Morgan Library.
Helen acquires two scary friends who push her toward the bank robberies in which she participates. They don’t belong to the far-left Weather Underground, but to another group, Mattison writes. Their motivation is unclear, and Olive can’t understand Helen’s actions.
But the Weathermen had an ideology. Their bombings were intended to “bring the war home” and cause an anti-imperialist revolution. They were terrorists unmoored from reality, but their actions were based on a system of beliefs. A member of the group would not have needed Joshua Griffin to persuade her that violence was an acceptable tactic.
“Conscience” offers an inaccurate portrayal of 1960s radicalism; only in that world does the distress of Griff and Olive make sense. Yes, it’s fiction. But I suspect that the book’s weaknesses — the confusion caused by its multiple story lines, its constant switching among narrators and times — stem from the intellectual confusion at its core. Olive complains that “Bright Morning of Pain” created an unreal version of the 1960s. So, in its way, does “Conscience.”
Elsa Dixler is a former editor at the Book Review.
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