Dissenters held in a listless grip

July 11, 2004|By Michael Harris | Michael Harris,Los Angeles Times

Resistance, by Barry Lopez. Alfred A. Knopf. 164 pages. $18.

The narrators of these nine linked short stories by award-winning Barry Lopez seem an unlikely group to attract the attention of Inland Security, a U.S. government agency that is "but a few years old" in Lopez's imagined near future, "though already monolithic." They aren't members of a terrorist cell. Most aren't even political activists. Many have moved to the world's margins: the deserts of western China, the Amazon rain forest, the high plains of Montana. Yet their "resistance" is perceived as a threat.

Each of the nine, loosely connected by friendship and e-mail, receives an invitation home for a little chat with the Justice Department. Their response instead is to move on, to put even more distance, physical and psychological, between them and the powers that be. First, though, they tell their stories, each preceded by a monotype by artist Alan Magee of a face resembling a shrunken head or a mask of suffering.

What are these people resisting and how? Owen Daniels, a curator in Paris, rejects the notions that "success is financial achievement, that the future is better, that life is an entertainment." He sees a subtle post-Sept. 11 fascism developing in the United States and mourns that "we cannot tell our people a story that sticks. ... It is not that they do not understand. It is that they cannot act. And the response to tyranny of every sort ... must always be this: dismantle it."

Lisa Meyer, an architect and installation artist in Argentina, has experienced military rule, the breakup of her family and a "vast and seemingly intractable injustice." Gary Sinclair, an itinerant carpenter, was sexually abused as a boy. He accepts that he has been damaged and tries to live as a smiling, harmless pariah. In India, however, he is mugged by a gang of street children and reacts with an anger and violence he didn't know he had in him. Now aware of his power, he must live up to its responsibilities

Lopez, who won the 1986 National Book Award for nonfiction for Arctic Dreams, is expert at sketching in these people's varied lives and the environments in which they work. But there is a sameness to their stories. The resisters are of similar age; all are educated, intelligent, sensitive, skilled at professions outside the corporate mainstream. They try to help poor and indigenous people but are not poor or indigenous themselves. They see business-first priorities as a physical threat to life on Earth but often express their discontent in spiritual or aesthetic terms.

As for the targets of resistance, they are "careful not to declare any particular person or thing the enemy -- that religion, this or that political party, a certain constituency, capitalism, this or that head of state." This is admirable, but it gives the book a certain vagueness. Solving the problems of the age, one says, "requires a degree of imagination people have never had to exercise." A wrestler can't pin an opponent without wrapping arms around him; similarly, Inland Security, if it existed, would have little to fear from dissenters like these, still struggling to wrap their minds around their own culture.

Michael Harris, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, regularly reviews books for the Los Angeles Times. This review, in longer form, was published in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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