- Children of the Revolution
Praise be to Nero’s NeptuneThe Titanic sails at dawnAnd everybody’s shouting“Which Side Are You On?”—Dylan, “Desolation Row”
The way I see it, the war for the soul of the novel has raged from the moment that narrative need first took hold in our kludged-up rejiggering of the mammalian brain. For as long as the species has been turning simple correlations into shaped stories, there have always been what Zadie Smith has called Two Paths for the Novel. Limbic versus cortical, affective versus thinky, System One versus System Two, character-driven versus word-drunk, mimetic versus allegorical, realist versus… well, call it wacky: name your fictitious binary and pick a side. The novel has from the start been forever free to choose between hiding its formal joinery or calling attention to its fast and loose fancy footwork and calling it the chief, sweet dance itself. The war goes ever on, now and always, and the literature of every age has been characterized by its own distinctive mix of that figure and ground.
Small-n errors often trick us into thinking that the difference between Then and Now is greater than it really is. Our sense of the literature of any given decade rarely depends on more than several dozen titles, max. And yet it seems to me that for a brief, amazing moment fifty years back, fiction’s path of prime choice went fluid and florid, and wildness was, for a while, not a bug in the system, but the system’s best feature.
Okay: consummate wildness was never, to be sure, even in that zenith decade of “experimental fiction,” the main game in town; nor was it ever anywhere close to being the most lucrative. Then, as now—as shall ever be—the great majority of 60’s fiction was well-behaved and largely preoccupied with the small-s self—the pressing questions of private happiness and who gets to marry whom. Even today, when Big Data enforces the tyranny of the majority and user reviews treat books like so many small appliances, tons of fabulous revolutionary, outlaw books are being published and posted—more exciting pages a year than you have years left to read them all in. Most books of any era are nervous mongrels of the naughty and the normative. But the astonishing thing about the world fifty years back was just how much weird and wild extravagance, just how many outrageous baroque excesses the mainstream reader was willing to buy, read, struggle with, stomach, and talk about in public.
Do I romanticize? Very well, then: I romanticize. I was not quite three years old when the Greensboro Woolworth’s heard the change that was finally coming, and I just turned 13 when the Beatles realized that getting back was no longer a viable option. As such, the books that landed in my lap during adolescence left me, my whole life long, favorably disposed to the idea that underneath the paving stones there might indeed be beach. I still believe as much, even now, when it has long since become clear that underneath the beach there’s a whole lot of shale oil waiting to get royally fracked. The sixties had their prominent aesthetic police, men (invariably) who warned artists never to wake the sleepwalking reader, but to keep her forever tranced out in what John Gardner would eventually call, with unqualified moral approval, “the fictive dream.” But the cops are only ever there to make the robbers more ingenious. And that era witnessed the alignment of a constellation of criminal talent as outrageous as any decade has ever produced—novelists who shared very little, in fact, aside from the realization that the Real and the Moving and the Meaningful are all assembled things, frail, transiting, and contingent, and that our sacred small-s selves are forever made and unmade by processes that we’d like to believe are a priori, outside us, and eternal.
Other aesthetic policemen mind us now, people who also know how fiction (singular) works and who value that immersive fictive dream—the heroic ride that looks like me...