Some of the grand old political slogans don't ring so clear in the age of terror. "Give me liberty or give me death!" Patrick Henry cried at the end of his heroic speech in 1775. And since 1969 the people of New Hampshire have stamped "Live Free or Die" on their license plates. I used to think that was a glorious choice. But now, as the world seems daily torn by men unwilling to compromise or deliberate, that spirit of absolutism sounds fatalistic, even fatal. I wish I could hear more of the sentiment from the gracious opening of Henry's speech in which he admitted, "Different men often see the same subject in different lights."
A penetrating novel called "Pearl," by Mary Gordon, explores the allure of political extremism in starkly personal terms. How glorious, Gordon asks, is the choice between ideals or death when a loved one is choosing suicide?
The story opens on Christmas night, 1998, in New York when Maria gets a call from the State Department that her daughter, Pearl, has chained herself to a flagpole at the American Embassy in Dublin and may die from starvation. For Maria, who knows Pearl is a shy girl studying languages at Trinity College, this news is as baffling as it is terrifying. She calls Joseph, an old family friend in Rome who thinks of Pearl as a daughter, and the two of them set off immediately for Ireland from their separate locations.
It's a marvel that Gordon makes this so compelling because after those two phone calls, nobody moves or speaks for almost 200 pages. Maria and Joseph are strapped into their seats on different planes; Pearl lies on the cold ground in Dublin. And yet, by tracing how these three very different people have come to their desperate positions, Gordon tells a gripping story.
Impatient, dramatic, and self-righteous, Maria has been protesting since her own youth, when she pored over saints' lives, fantasizing about the glory of martyrdom. Later, when her father moved to protect her from radical friends during the Vietnam War, she cut him off, never spoke to him again, and never regretted showing him that her ideals matter more than anything else.
But now, she's speeding halfway around the world to convince a daughter making her own political protest that "Nothing is worth your life."
Joseph, meanwhile, is conflicted by his own reactions. Reserved where Maria is headstrong, he's torn between the terror of losing his beloved Pearl and the depressing prospect of living in a world in which nothing is worth dying for. How, he wonders, can he possibly save this girl while protecting her from everyone's condescension, from the assumption that she must be deluded to make such a deadly protest?
Of course, neither of them can imagine why Pearl would fast for six weeks and then handcuff herself to an embassy flagpole. "As long as I've known her," Maria thinks, "she's been only marginally aware of politics."
In a typed statement full of confused confessions and noble platitudes, Pearl announces that she's giving her life in witness to the death of a simple young man who was hit by a car several months earlier. He was the nephew of an IRA terrorist, but she had nothing to do with his death, which by all accounts was simply a tragic accident. "I am doing this in the name of justice," she writes, "in witness to the truth [because] I have learned that I am capable of harming."
Then suddenly, Gordon comes crashing in: "Of course we do not agree with her."
It's impossible not to be startled by these strangely ironic narrative intrusions: "Let us go back to September 1967," she says at the opening of one section. "You want to know about Pearl's birth," she writes at another. "Does it help you understand why she is where she is?" she asks. "I will use this time to tell you about her past."
No storyteller has spoken to me like this since Mom stopped cutting my meat at dinner. I understand that Gordon is toying with us, calling attention to the act of storytelling, deconstructing our faith in the ability of narrative to explain others' actions, to connect one baffling event to another. And I'm sure this technique will be enthusiastically debated around the English department water cooler (Gordon teaches at Barnard College in New York). But ordinary people are likely to find it more obtrusive than witty. And I'm not convinced that her narrative hand-holding adds much to a story that's already packed with the weight of a dozen religious and political themes.
Readers who don't like someone telling them when to turn the page may give up, and that's too bad because in search of an explanation for Pearl's behavior, Gordon takes us deep into the tragedy of Irish terrorism and the familial tensions of extremism.
Pearl, it turns out, has witnessed some particularly ghastly atrocities, and in despair she hopes her death will make the kind of pure protest she could never make with her life.
For her liberal mother, who's led a life of rebellion on somebody else's dime, Pearl's bodily sacrifice inspires a complicated crisis of faith. Gordon turns this problem in every direction, and there are moments when the novel sags under the burden of its cogitation, but the issues couldn't be more relevant to our time. The martyr, the hunger striker, the suicide bomber, the terrorist, they all share that pure faith in well-orchestrated death.
Joseph and Maria and their sacrificial child (religious references come on thick as the book draws to a close) must find some way to resist that deadly purity and affirm their lives. Gordon follows this crisis with deep respect for the difficulties involved and never arrives at anything like an answer, but the light she sheds along the way is very provocative.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.