A few weeks back, in a review of Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, I remarked upon the recent proliferation of novels about the counterculture of the 1960s and about its turn toward violence. The book reviews in this week’s New Yorker would seem to confirm the trend. The lead item in the “Briefly Noted” column concerns Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, which takes as its point of departure a fictional version of the Unabomber case. Meanwhile, in an essay generous in both length and tone, James Wood reviews Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self (about the child of SDS radicals) and Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (about “swinging London’s” revolutionary underground.)
Wood suggests, with characteristic perspicuity, that the Age of Aquarius offers novelists room to explore “ideological radicalism” without having to address September 11 and political Islam. To which I say: Right on! As we at The Millions have noted before, the world-historical developments of the last decade seem to demand novelistic attention; at the same time, they’ve become so freighted with symbolic and ideological meaning as to seem inhospitable to levity, or irony. DeLillo’s Falling Man, to name one September 11 title, was hobbled by its temporal and emotional proximity to the events it considered. The farther it drifted from these events, the more alive its characters seemed.
It’s worth noting, however, that the historical attraction of the Age of Aquarius predates the explosion of “ideological radicalism” into the public consciousness, circa 2001. Sorrentino, Choi, and (I’m guessing) Dana Spiotta began writing about the radical underground way back in the Clinton era, which marked, we were told, “the end of history.” Which points to another, related reason why contemporary novelists may find the ’60s so fertile. That was a time, it seems, when a classless society actually seemed like an achievable goal… when it was possible to argue, with a straight face, that “All you need is love.” For a writer concerned to dramatize ideas, this sort of political ardor is hard to resist. (Think, e.g., of Dostoevsky.) Nowadays, as Hari Kunzru’s narrator remarks, “Ideology’s dead…. Everyone pretty much agrees on how to run things.”