The “Bond Street Aktionists” of Lisa Dierbeck’s second novel, The Autobiography of Jenny X, are a group of self-styled “radical peace activists” led by Christopher Benedict, a child of privilege turned drug dealer, who believes in “art as a transgression” as a “profound visceral experience.” It’s an attractive stance to his fifteen-year-old girlfriend, Jenny, whom he picked up at the Second Chance Society charity for inner-city girls, but not one that seems borne out by the art they produce. The group’s most notable “aktion,” a touring piece called “A Wanted Man,” a derivative and rather banal happening of the old school, does finally live up to this vision, but only accidentally.
A staging goes violently awry when Christopher allows a maimed, mentally ill female army veteran to participate. As a result, Christopher is sent to jail, and Jenny reinvents herself as Nadia Larini, wealthy heir to displaced white Russians. When Christopher is released twenty years later, he finds himself in an unrecognizable world of iPads and McMansions, and no one gives a damn about the Aktionists. Nadia, meanwhile, leads a life of bourgeois privilege, with three children and a doctor husband.
Whether there are any Aktion-like pieces that could be relevant today, when media and advertisers so quickly co-opt all attempts at rebellion, is a tantalizing, if unexplored, undercurrent in the book. Instead, the emphasis is on the past, specifically the weight of the past on the present. It’s a subject that has inspired novelists to any number of narrative strategies, and Dierbeck sidesteps the most familiar ones: a Rashomon-like fragmentation of the characters’ actions, say, or a story filtered through an unreliable narrator. Her method is to move characters built in conventional novelistic fashion through a world that gradually appears more and more unfamiliar and inexplicable.
Working back from the time of Christopher’s release, it seems the Aktionists’ heyday should have been roughly 1989 or ’90. If their art was derivative and banal, then why did it create such a stir, even prior to the incident that sent Christopher to jail? What are we to make of an archival interview stating that Congress attempted to suspend the first, second, and fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution? The first Gulf War started in 1990—yet doesn’t the book tell us that we had been at war for years? And why does Christopher speak in a post-beatnik argot? (“Here’s the plot, babe,” he says; he goes after a “hip-looking café chick.”)
It’s a sly move on Dierbeck’s part. In a novel that’s about the mutability of the past and our own personas—and where that mutability reaches its limits—the world itself is way ahead of mere humans. Several decades of American history are collapsed and reimagined so that an artist’s collective that seems out of the ’60s is protesting a war that could be the one we’re fighting now, while civil liberties have undergone some nightmarish future abridgement—all set to a Blondie sound track.
The characters don’t always live up to the ingenuity of the backdrop. Christopher, with his gripes and his platitudes, is often flat. Jenny, though, vibrates with a remarkable intensity as Dierbeck relentlessly stress-tests her ability to maintain an assumed identity in a world that seems dead set on unmasking her. The way in which Jenny’s psychic distress is mapped to the reigning temporal confusion is the novel’s finest achievement, a conjunction that’s strange, bitter, and compelling.