June/July/Aug 2008

Go Start Anew

Over three decades have passed since the heyday of radical politics and the counterculture. Yet the conflicts and moral contradictions of the time animate four recent novels by writers too young to remember those events firsthand.

David L. Ulin


Not long ago, at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, I saw a guy wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. Actually, it wasn't a Che shirt per se, although it did bear his image; rather, it meant to offer a broader social comment, declaring revolution is evolution in Courier font across the front. A number of oddities and ironies emerge here, beginning with the fact that "Revolution is evolution" was a coinage not of Che's but of Emma Goldman's boyfriend Alexander Berkman. "Because revolution is evolution at its boiling point," he wrote in his 1929 treatise What Is Communist Anarchism?, "you cannot 'make' a real revolution any more than you can hasten the boiling of a tea kettle." More to the point is a visitor to the Huntington espousing anything like revolution on a quiet Sunday afternoon. We were sitting in the newly opened Liu Fang Yuan, or Garden of Flowing Fragrance, at a pavilion designed to look like a Chinese teahouse. Kids ran across the immaculately tended landscape, and everyone spoke in half whispers as if not to disturb the serenity. Henry Huntington, whose estate this used to be, was one of the American West's (and, indeed, America's) great capitalists—he cofounded the Pacific Electric Railway Company and was once the largest landowner in Southern California. But in the end, the sharpest irony had to do with the shirt itself. The man wearing it was about my age, mid-forties, and he looked prosperous, nice haircut, physically fit. I'd guess he wanted a revolution about as much as I do, which is to say not at all. And yet, there he was, paying lip service to an amorphous idea of radicalism, politics as fashion, something you can put on or take off. This is one of the unresolved legacies of the '60s: a sense of ambiguity, or even contradiction, about what that decade really meant. "Here in this bunch of 10,000 to 50,000 people somehow unable to count themselves," Denis Johnson wrote in his 2000 essay "Hippies," "I see my generation epitomized: a Peter Pan generation nannied by matronly Wendys like Bill and Hillary Clinton, our politics a confusion of Red and Green beneath the black flag of Anarchy; cross-eyed and well-meaning, self-righteous, self-satisfied; close-minded, hypocritical, intolerant—Loving you!—Sieg Heil!"

Johnson's observation can be read as cynical social commentary or as lament. Lately, though, I've come to think of it as a thesis statement for what is starting to look like a developing subgenre of contemporary literature: the novel of the '60s reassessed. Or no, not the '60s, not exactly, but the period's counterculture. One of the finest of these, Christopher Sorrentino's 2005 Trance, takes place in the mid-'70s and reimagines the long, strange trip of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patricia Hearst. This is not revisionist history, or even historical fiction in the strictest sense; Sorrentino fluidly mixes fact and invention, recasting Hearst as Alice Daniels Galton, while also interweaving plenty of real names—such as those of SLA members Donald DeFreeze, Willie Wolfe, and Angela Atwood—and basing his narrative closely on actual events. Still, in seeking not to re-create the Hearst saga so much as to recast it, Sorrentino opens up the whole conflicted period to reinterpretation, peeling back the revolutionary myth. He's not alone: In the past few years, several other books, including Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions (2007), Zachary Lazar's Sway (2008), and Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document (2006), have zeroed in on the moral incongruities of the era, particularly the push-and-pull between intention and illusion, between what we say and who we are. "The politics have to take a backseat to the show," a character named Guy Mock notes in the middle of Trance, after Alice, along with Drew and Diane Shepard (Bill and Emily Harris), has gone to hide out at a Pennsylvania farmhouse. (Mock is based on Jack Scott, the former Oberlin College athletic director who helped get Hearst and the Harrises out of California after the May 17, 1974, shootout with the LAPD that left six SLA members dead.) "Maybe they say they want to overthrow the government. Maybe they even believe it. But if anything, these guys' relationship to power is parasitic. . . . What they really excel at is preempting the regularly scheduled programming."

Books like Trance and My Revolutions may, of course, address the politics of the '60s, but they are marked by a twenty-first-century sensibility, a recognition of the role of image, of revolution less as social movement than as public display. "The insidious message of the spectacle—that nothing takes place, even for the participants, unless it's electronically witnessed and played back—took us over," Kunzru writes. "We thought we were striking a blow against it, the hypnotic dream show of fuckable bodies and consumer goods. Instead we fell into the screen. Our world became television." For Sorrentino, this is a two-way conversation: His novel is full of pop-culture references (High Noon, The Honeymooners, The New Centurions, and Citizen Kane in the first thirty-five pages alone) swirling through the rhetoric, as if to reiterate that in a consumer society, there is no purity, no revolutionary clarity to be found. "Workers of the world, unite—and let's go to the movies!" reflects Alice when the SLA select a drive-in as a rendezvous point. Ironically framing the role of insurrection in mass culture, Sorrentino suggests that even the most radical sentiments are instantaneously assimilated and spit back at us, in the form of a motion picture or a T-shirt.

At the heart of this observation is the question of corruption, which infuses all these novels like an animating force. It's a complicated sort of corruption, though—not just of society but of the self. "It is easy for a life to become unblessed," begins Eat the Document, which tells the story of Mary Whittaker, a '70s radical gone underground. Roughly a quarter century later, living in the suburbs with her fifteen-year-old son, Mary has become "the sort of person who seems constantly to be halfway elsewhere," pacifying herself each night with white-wine spritzers until she is "increasingly placid and a bit dulled." The same is true of Chris Carver, who narrates My Revolutions and could be Mary's soul mate: another ex-revolutionary, who walked away from his anarchist cell in the late '60s and has spent a generation living quietly with his wife and stepdaughter under the name of Michael Frame. Needless to say, neither character's family has any idea of these past lives, of what was once believed and done. And yet what makes these novels so compelling is that they are not just about self-deception. Rather, they get at the very nature of identity, at how the stories we tell ourselves and the roles we play become essential parts of who we are. Spiotta closely observes Mary as she obliterates her history: "She knew all about the undoing of a life: take away, first of all, your people. Your family. Your lover. That was the hardest part of it. Then put yourself somewhere unfamiliar, where (how did it go?) you are a complete unknown. Where you possess nothing. Okay, then—this was the strangest part—take away your history, every last bit of it. . . . The unnerving, surprisingly creepy and unpleasantly psychedelic part—you lose your name."

Mary's experience as a fugitive is hardly typical, but Spiotta's near-tactile sense of her reinvention opens the process to us, making her experience our own. These are all the things we take for granted: our names, our families, the ways we are situated in the world by a thousand tiny details. What happens when these things get stripped away by virtue of ideology or personality, because of notoriety or fame? What happens when the liberation movement becomes less liberatory than restrictive, a cell quite literally, not only trapping us but disconnecting us in the most intimate sense? Here we have a key component of Trance and My Revolutions, both of which show what happens when we substitute the absolutist revolutionary lies we tell ourselves for the lies that society tells us. In such a world, there is no room for anyone but the true believer, who develops increasingly elaborate rationalizations for his or her acts. When the SLA kidnap a teenager and appropriate his van, they label him a "Civilian Prisoner of War" and claim that "running a revolution is a pretty expensive business"; when they kill a woman in a botched bank robbery, one cries out, "She was just a bourgeois pig, a bourgeois pig!" The same is true of Chris and his cohorts—when they move from idealism to violence, they don't achieve any great political clarity, only greater paranoia, which, in turn, makes them more isolated and doctrinaire. "Other groups were continuing the political work we'd once done," he reflects; "they were still connected to the struggle, to something wider than themselves. Once I'd been surrounded by people. Where had they all gone?"

Sway addresses similar themes through a very different filter, interweaving three story lines—the early years of the Rolling Stones, the life of underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and the sad, sorry saga of Charles Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil—to explore the place where idealism ends. The novel is a dark epic, in many ways about the loss of hope, the moment when fantasies become irrevocably real. Most telling, perhaps, is that even in the center of the countercultural maelstrom, it can be hard for Lazar's characters to see this, to recognize that the new world, the new life, the new society, has begun to close in on itself. Late in the book, there's a sequence at Keith Richards's country estate in England, where the Stones are relaxing before their 1969 American tour (the one that ended at Altamont). Here, Lazar portrays the band members' willful blindness, the sense that nothing has a context larger than itself. "There are things in the songs," Mick Jagger notes in the novel, discussing the Stones' reputation for dabbling in evil. "But most of it is just people's fantasies. Fantasies about the way we live our lives, which people want to think is 'evil' or 'satanic' or whatever they want to call it."

Jagger, of course, possesses a young man's sense of hubris, of standing outside history yet still being able to affect its course. But history has a way of catching up with us, if not necessarily as we intend. In Sway's closing pages, Lazar invents a conversation between Anger and Anita Pallenberg, two '60s veterans come together once again. It's 2002, and Pallenberg is visiting Anger in his Echo Park apartment, where he lives in a kind of "museum stillness," alone now in his old age. "I thought you were beyond thinking," he says of her and the Stones, as if the band (and, by extension, the counterculture) might have been able to exist outside the bounds of everyday humanity, reflecting not just a revolution of politics and style but one of consciousness. In fact, though, as Pallenberg points out, "We weren't thinking, most of the time you knew us. You never really understood that, how little thinking we were doing." The point is key, and it's instructive for understanding all these novels—for they are about a revolution of unconsciousness, the ways we delude ourselves into thinking we are somehow immune. It's the revolutionary fallacy, the fallacy of all "Year One" thinking, from the Bastille to Never Mind the Bollocks. There is no Year One, there is no outside, there is no breaking point at which we can shed the past, both personal and public, and take the great leap forward into a newer world. "I saw myself walking down the street smiling," Chris recalls in My Revolutions, explaining his inability even to dream up what such a newer world might look like. "I saw a sunny day. Everything I saw looked like an advertisement. . . . I was angry with myself. Was that really all I could imagine? Not even to have a picture of freedom. How abject. How bleak." Later, in an especially revealing encounter, he presses his occasional lover and revolutionary compatriot Anna Addison on her own notion of the future, only to be rebuffed. "Can't you see," she says, "that the future's not for us? . . . Look at how we live. . . . We're damaged people. There would be no place for us in the world we're trying to build."

And yet, that's not correct, not in any real sense. We all grow up, we all get older, we all must deal with the limitations of our ideals and our commitment, as well as the consequences of who we once were. "That was the year, my twenty-eighth," Joan Didion writes in 1967's "Goodbye to All That," "when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it." Didion is reporting back from a very different corner of the culture, but the basic sentiments are the same. This is the idea behind My Revolutions and Eat the Document, which frame that irrevocability through a double lens, balancing past and present, the revolution and its aftermath. In detailing their protagonists' self-betrayals, the authors of both books ruthlessly expose how our ideals come with their corruption encoded. Such a betrayal is public and privateor perhaps it's most accurate to say that the private emerges from the public, just as the future emerges from the past. "One day," Spiotta writes, "she would have lived her new life so long that the conjuring of the old life would seem like a dream, an act of imagination. Eventually it would almost feel as though it had never happened. This was the way it was supposed to go down. A secret held so long that even you no longer believe it isn't really you." Mary, however, is too smart to believe that. And so are the other characters who animate these novels. Patty Hearst herself, shortly after she was arrested, responded to a prison-sentence-completion test in a California jail by noting: "My greatest trouble is the present and the past, and I guess the future too."

Hearst's trouble is the one we all face, no matter our age or politics. It's telling that all these novels were written by authors who didn't experience the period they re-create, not as adults, anyway. As a consequence, their vision of '60s and '70s radicalism is expansive; they don't burnish archetypes but rather seek to portray something complicated and alive. Kunzru and Spiotta, Lazar and Sorrentino, stage the revolution as an existential drama, a narrative of personal transformation. And as they remind us, the process is often difficult and bleak. This brings to mind John Lennon, who, in the white-hot center of the era, sang, "You tell me it's the institution, you better free your mind instead." That was forty years ago, and yet the notion remains vivid: Revolution as evolution—just as Alexander Berkman said.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Viking, 2004).

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