Online Edition: Summer 2001

Karlmarx.com by Susan Coll

Karlmarx.com

Susan Coll

Simon & Schuster ($23)

by Julie Madsen

“I'm not a Marxist!" Coll's protagonist, Ella, exclaims repeatedly throughout the novel. It is the defining sentiment for the entire book, whose title could woo real champions of Marxist theory with its Marx-from-a-postmodern-perspective allusion. The book will probably not be such a disappointment for readers who are open to a quirky romantic tale with light overtones of political theory--an odd mix to be sure, but perhaps revolutionary in its own way.

Ella is a political theory student, nearly 30, who has chosen Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx's daughter, as her thesis subject--specifically, Eleanor's involvement with a married man, which Ella believes led to her debilitating depression and, ultimately, suicide. Ella's fascination with Eleanor's fate escalates as she discovers uncanny similarities to her own romantic life, although Ella is much less prone to suicide than to shopping her worries away.

While enmeshed in her romantic woes, Ella finds herself employed by a slightly unbalanced Marx enthusiast called the Colonel, who is bent on bringing Marxist thought back in vogue to modern-day masses via mementos such as "smiling Marx" T-shirts, coffee mugs, and the like, to be sold on a website that Ella is to construct. His ultimate goal is to have "people in America walking around speaking in Marxisms. You know, ‘Workers of the world, unite,’ that sort of thing, only more relevant and less threatening." Coll is not subtle with irony; she hypes it as flashily as the Colonel does his beloved bearded icon.

Ella, caught between becoming a dispenser of cheap trifles that inadvertently ridicule more than they promote Marxist thought, and dealing with her personal issues, personifies perfectly her generation's ambivalence toward the radicalism and militancy of the previous generation: When she hears a poem from a college twenty-something about revolution, introduced by his comment that "the time is ripe, I think," she ponders, "Was the time ripe for revolution, or for a poem about revolution, or maybe for a mail-order catalog about revolution?"

Karlmarx.com begins with the perfect epigraph, a quote from Marx himself: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Coll’s book is a clear result of this phenomenon.

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Summer 2001 Table of Contents