Well-crafted fiction about the politics and psychosis of the sixties is becoming a growing industry.
“The Last of Her Kind,” by Sigrid Nunez (Farrar Straus and Giroux); “Eat the Document: A Novel” by Dana Spiotta (Scribner)
By Harvey Blume
The legacy of the sixties keeps coming at us. By now, even President Bush might have a sense of the world-historical blunder he made by ignoring that sixties bequest, the Vietnam Syndrome, by storming into Baghdad. The staying power of the sixties is clear also from the way its cultural divisions fueled the debate about impeaching President Clinton for covering up the crime of Oval Office fellatio — laughable in view of what Bush is not impeached for.
But that’s old news. These days, the sixties takes an ironic turn into literature — ironic because of how anti-literary the decade was. Grace Slick got the era’s lust for raw experience right when she yowled on one song that her generation faced the choice of: “Living in stories/ And living in books,” or learning to “live and leave all the stories behind.” In her mid-sixties now, Slick probably doesn’t lust for raw experience quite the way she did. And the music — that kind of music — has died. Novels tell the tale.
It’s true that one kind of sixties novel has been in circulation at least as far back as Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” (1978). I mean the sixties war novel, detailing the real, imagined or unimaginable experiences of those who served in Vietnam . What distinguishes the current crop of fictions — including Neil Gordon’s “The Company You Keep,” Susan Choi’s “American Woman,” Christopher Sorrentino’s “Trance,” Russell Banks’s “The Darling,” and, most recently, Sigrid Nunez’s “The Last of Her Kind” and Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document” — from the war novels is that the newer narratives involve characters who never go to Vietnam but whose experiences take on many of war’s twisted intensities.
Published earlier this year, Nunez’s and Spiotta’s novels leave no doubt that in so far as literature is concerned, the Boomer story is booming. Both writers show remarkable talent in describing the big bangs of the sixties, and to bringing their characters into conflicted semblances of adulthood and maturity.
Nunez is a veteran novelist with a gift for evoking atmosphere. Here, for example, is how one character describes the East Village on a warm night in the early ’70s: “One block brought you every kind of expression: smiling, angry, lost, frightened, zonked, secretive, ashamed, paranoid, smug, heartbroken, bored, stupid, hopeful, hopeless, guilty, calculating… not every one of them was alive, and not everyone was human.”
Such concentration of human material may be a Dickensian gold mine for a novelist, but, as Nunez sees it, a mixed blessing for her characters. Weirdness weirdness everywhere can trigger or camouflage madness. Georgette, the book’s narrator, is afflicted, for example, by her sister’s bouts of derangement, and wonders what role the sixties played. “If there hadn’t been so many runaways,” she asks, “maybe [her sister] would have stood out… Where was the line between liberation and promiscuity? Between promiscuity and nymphomania?”
Where, bluntly, is the line between politics and psychosis? That was the question Philip Roth took up in his “American Pastoral” — still, despite competition, the most memorable of all sixties novels. For entertaining the prospect that under sufficient pressure politics could buckle into psychosis, Roth was savaged by critics committed to keeping sixties utopianism unblemished.
The relationship between politics and psychosis haunts Nunez, too. At Barnard, circa ’68, Georgette roomed with Ann, who came from great wealth, and, for that reason despised herself and her origins vehemently. Ann’s fierce, self-sacrificial moralism is much like John Brown’s at Harper’s Ferry. She winds up sentenced to life imprisonment after shooting policemen she perceived as threatening her black husband. But had she overreacted? Was her action heroic — or just mad?
Georgette engages these questions as she ages, marries, remarries, and commences a love affair with none other than Ann’s supposedly despicable father. It’s a complex tale that Nunez can bring off because of her humor, intelligence and unfailing grasp of plot and character.
Spiotta’s prose has its own edgy rewards, derived, in part, from her coming at the sixties by way of Jonathan, a geeky, often ironically self-aware member of the next generation. Jonathan is the adolescent son of Caroline. Caroline, we learn, has worked through several identities since being Mary. In the 1970s, Mary (and her lover Bobby) were responsible famously botched bombing, killing a housekeeper instead of a chemical company executive whose firm devised weapons for Vietnam.
Mary helped plant this bomb because, after years of futile opposition to the war, she felt compelled to, “put myself at risk, personally.” She explains to a woman she meets while hiding: “Napalm, someone makes that, you know? Someone sits in an R and D lab and thinks, ‘Let’s make it burn, but hey, let’s add plastic so it will also stick … let’s add phosphorus so it burns underwater, burns through to bone’.” She resolves those behind it all should, “pay some price for the terrible things they did for pride or power or profit.”
Her son Jonathan hasn’t a clue — at first. Raised in a hi-tech northwest suburb — a “freak’s dream world” as he puts it — he sees his mother as, “creepily guarded. … Like she isn’t really entirely sure she is in the right house, or the right life.” When the kid figures out why she’s like that, he’s floored — though less impressed by the bombing than by the boozy, sunset dance his mother did in the arms of a Beach Boy whose music he fetishizes.
Meanwhile Bobby, now known as Nash, has opened a steal-this-book kind of bookstore with assistance from Henry, a man afflicted with terrifying flashbacks to Vietnam. These flashbacks differ from sort so often found in novels because Henry has never served in Vietnam. This doesn’t deter nightmares about sitting in the cockpit of a plane dropping napalm.
Both Nunez and Spiotta move from past to present fluently. They show, if nothing else, that the sixties was material for great literature.