The novel focuses on this contemporary couple, Arjuna and Siva. Arjuna, the narrator, is, like his warrior namesake, confused to the point of despair and inanition by the sociocultural circumstances in which he finds himself; suburban American has turned wonder into commodity and narrowed the possibilities for life to a movement toward death. He seeks release from this state by telling the story of the St. Louis General Strike of 1877, in which the workers' short-lived commune was destroyed by the military lackeys of the bosses. Siva and a guest, Alex, are both audience for and contributors to this story, which grows narrative branches until it becomes also the stories of the Bhagavad Gita's battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, Les Miserables' students on the barricades, the European revolutions of 1848, and the Parisian students of 1968. As the narrator later explains, "we live our ordinary lives on the site of fabulous violence, to be sure, but these are also the sites of exciting lost opportunity." This story seems to achieve for Arjuna a self-conscious reincarnation, in which he repeats the events of his life with both a strange sense of deja vu and a helpless certainty that possibilities are narrowing for him the same way they had last time. Siva takes many forms in Arjuna's life: housewife, punk delinquent, porn queen. But in each of them she functions as the incarnation of the Hindu divinity of destruction and regeneration. She is the novel's deconstructive principle, breaking down all claims to absolute truth and, in blurring the boundaries between things usually kept discrete, creating new possibilities for organizing and making sense of the epistemological, social, and ontological. In a deceptively self-referential coda the narrator has apparently been re-reincarnated into an author who has just finished writing the novel we are reading, and Siva now takes the form of his wife, May. They travel to St. Louis to visit the site of the 1877 commune, but the writer instead ends up struggling with the conflict between theorizing and taking action to achieve a better world. In a revelatory finale Siva/May demonstrates that storytelling combines theory and action and that in the right combinations stories create the possibilities with which we can change the world.
White's narrator is engaging, his take on contemporary life simultaneously funny and disturbing, his retelling of history's stories absorbing. But this novel is most exciting in its creation of the new via juxtapositions of the past and the present, the divine and the profane, what is and what could be. [Robert L. McLaughlin]