The most frequently invoked American cliché of the last few years might be exceedingly simple-minded, but it also has the benefit of being true: 9/11 was the day that changed the world forever. In his latest collection of short fiction, Barry Lopez addresses the premonitory tremors and staggering aftershocks of that utterly changed world through the eyes and experiences of nine witnesses — men and women who have lived their lives in conscious opposition to American hegemony and consumerism and are now under scrutiny, and even threat, from the powers they’ve pledged to resist.
The nine stories in Resistance take the form of testimonies of sorts written by members of a loose-knit American diaspora — men and women in Paris, Tanzania, China, Canada, Brazil — all of whom have received the same dispatch from the newly formed “Office of Inland Security”: a letter announcing the government’s “widespread irritation” with their work and expressing a strong “desire to speak” with each of them. The nine, having read and understood the summons, in effect decide to resist one last time, to go underground, leaving behind only a testimony, a chronicle of how and why they became significant blips on Big Brother’s post-9/11 radar.
Unsurprisingly, coming as they do from the author of the radiant Arctic Dreams, the Notes trilogy, and a dozen other impassioned works of fiction and nonfiction, the nine accounts are eloquent defenses of the natural world, of indigenous peoples, of moderation, of life lived outside the mainstream. The Western, especially the American, “appetite for distraction” is the great peril, and the men and women whose voices fill Resistance are convinced that the threat — from the unnamed American regime, from the ravages of unchecked “free market” capitalism, from “the ranks of people who celebrate the insults of advertising and the deceptions of public relations campaigns as the paths to redemption” — is great and real enough that testimony, followed by flight, seems the only sane option.
We hear from Elizabeth Wangfu, scholar and author of The Walls at Yogpar (“on leaving Kashgar, Xinjiang, China”), Harvey Fleming, blind Vietnam vet and military historian (“on leaving Tangiers”), Edward Larmirande, attorney, author and Native American–rights activist (“on leaving Winnipeg, Manitoba”), and others, all of whom tell tales of idealism quashed, disappointments suffered, dreams deferred, outrages nurtured or forgotten, enlightenment sought — in short, voices of Westerners who have plunged into foreignness, into The Other, in a common quest for meaning in a world increasingly homogenized, globalized, Americanized.
As always, Lopez’s writing is luminous, almost shamanic, with metaphors and poetic rhythms pulsing from every page. In the collection’s strongest story, “Mortise and Tenon,” the itinerant cabinetmaker Gary Sinclair recounts his travels through India, and a friend ruminates on a violent encounter between Sinclair and a young Indian street thug (“We can kill you right now, you white bastard, how about that?”).
Paradoxically, the eloquent, mesmeric voices that lend the book its strength are also, in a sense, its main weakness. There is so little variation in the style, in the sound of each “writer,” that, while their arguments and justifications for resistance in the face of a global power are compelling, they eventually end up sounding more like one committed author’s attempt to place his own arguments in others’ mouths, rather than the writings of distinct, sympathetic characters. “My brother was the reminder of a family where each sibling was the aggressive missionary of his own truth, and no one of us wanted to be the other’s convert.” Any one of the nine testifiers could have written that rather pretentious line in the unmodulated, hyperarticulate realm of Resistance.
Ambitious, didactic, imaginative, admonitory, self-righteous, humane — the stories in Resistance are at once hobbled and ennobled by their author’s passion. Lopez fans will rejoice in the collection, while others might find themselves put off by the book’s at times overly earnest wedding of the poet and the polemicist.
RESISTANCE | By BARRY LOPEZ | With monotypes by ALAN MAGEE Knopf 176 pages | $18 hardcover