Seventies Throwback Fiction
A Decade in Review
Lauren Groff. Arcadia. Hyperion, 2012.
A. M. Homes. May We Be Forgiven? Penguin, 2013.
Rachel Kushner. The Flamethrowers. Scribner, 2013.
Jhumpa Lahiri. The Lowland. Knopf, 2013.
Jonathan Lethem. Dissident Gardens. Doubleday, 2013.
Norman Rush. Subtle Bodies. Knopf, 2013.
Darcey Steinke. Sister Golden Hair. Tin House, 2014.
Meg Wolitzer. The Interestings. Riverhead, 2013.
Historical pastiche is one of our most important art forms, cutting across all media. We come to know it best through what we might call “decade-ism,” the artistic practice of parceling out history in ten-year spans. There is a menu of decades to choose from, and an audience with sophisticated tastes in recent period detail waiting to sample the latest clever, self-aware tweaking of classic ingredients. That TV serial set in the Sixties? It’s as rich as it looks, but the bitter aftertaste tells you the chef is sending up the clichés. Perhaps you’d prefer instead something from the Fifties (meaty, starchy) or, if you need something lighter, the Eighties (faintly metallic, a bit too sweet)? It doesn’t matter that these are simulacra. That knowingness only results in a finer appreciation for the precision and flair with which the results are prepared.
Not everything on the menu has been craved, though. The Seventies, that ragged decade, tends to be fodder for easy comedy. The details that attach to it — the polyester-and-feathered-hair-and-Moog-synthesizer aura — haven’t seemed ripe for mythic reinvention or idealizing treatment, more because of their banality than their unattractiveness. Images from the Seventies seem like meaningless citations without any larger significance, funny only because of their weird hollow particularity. Wasn’t the decade a dead end? Aren’t its details purely hermetic and self-regarding, artifacts from a time capsule no one would have intentionally preserved? Who would want to revisit that? Even Fredric Jameson, anatomist of our nostalgias, once commented that the specificity of the Seventies was its lack of specificity (ah, dialectical criticism! — one might almost think it an artifact of the very time it diagnoses). You can have a sincere or ironic taste for that trashy style, but you can’t pretend that anything world-historical gave that taste its alibi.
Everyone knows now how decades come back into fashion with motiveless regularity. That’s what pastiche does: it supplies styles for a market that craves novelty, even the refurbished kind. But the recent burst of fictional resurrections of the Seventies — the most acclaimed novels of recent years among them — doesn’t just represent the establishment of a new consumer market. The novelists who have lately returned to the Seventies seem to be making a stronger claim: that there is something uniquely vital to the decade, and in fact uniquely to be missed. In a bid to transcend our knowing cynicism, as well as the shabby reputation the Seventies have had, these stories hold up that moment for complicated admiration and longing. No small melancholy attends that task of historical recovery. Few people, Flaubert remarked to a friend after writing Salammbô, could guess how sad one had to be to want to resuscitate Carthage. How sad does one have to be to want to resuscitate the era of stagflation?
What if one could imagine a nostalgia that didn’t idealize?Tweet
Here is the territory the novels evoke: a mythic late summer, spacious, unsupervised, a little druggy, a little restless, hedged only by the feeling that everything is about to end. The actual location varies. It could be an upstate New York commune, a legacy of 1968, finding itself a victim of its own success (Arcadia); it could be a college campus in Rhode Island, a quiet refuge from Indian political turmoil (The Lowland); it could be a duplex community in Roanoke, Virginia, a turnout on the highway of downward mobility (Sister Golden Hair); it could be SoHo as the artists first move in (The Flamethrowers) or a Queens apartment complex as the immigrants start to move out (Dissident Gardens); it could even, in a slightly more literal version, be a Massachusetts summer arts camp (The Interestings). These are temporary, ramshackle utopias; no one ever quite gets over them. They are all, strikingly, collectives of one kind or another. Communal mourning saturates these stories: Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies gives us a literal funeral, where college friends grieve over a dead friend and their mid-Seventies college days — but none of these novels is ever very far from a feeling that a group is coming or has come to an end. This feeling can take the form of wistfulness or, in the case of the professor of “Nixonology” who narrates A. M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven?, a barely respectable obsession. Put it in the terms of the tag-line leading in to one of the decade’s most famous guitar riffs: close your eyes and it slips away.
This can all seem very archetypal, just a middle-aged generation mourning its youth. But what’s being mourned is even smaller and sharper than a decade: the post-OPEC-embargo, pre-Iran-hostage-crisis détente years on the American scene, as encapsulated in some landscapes that, however topographically different, share a family resemblance. Passive and wide-eyed protagonists, without obvious talents other than their sensitivity, drift through a world where grandiose hopes — for liberation or equality or world peace — are receding, but seem perhaps more realizable in the wash of their retreat. It’s not a moment to which any piety is owed: it’s “a world of fuckers,” as Meg Wolitzer’s teenagers see it; “a Ponzi scheme of herpes and divorce,” as one of Jonathan Lethem’s disillusioned ranters puts it. But there was space and time, we’re told. “We felt like we could play around,” one of Rush’s mourners recalls. It’s not that it was bliss in that dawn to be alive — more that it wasn’t all that bad to laze around in that late afternoon. Not much to miss, it seems; why might we miss it now?
Fiction may in one sense just be catching up to political and economic history. The past decade in particular has been a fertile time for thinking of the Seventies as the moment of transition from a postwar Western order to a global order that looks very much like ours (the “shock of the global,” one recent collection of essays about the Seventies calls it). Different master narratives, with very different emphases, look to the Seventies as both the end of an era and the origin of the present crisis. The contexts can be of divergent scales — from American politics or labor history to transnational cycles of production and capital accumulation — but there is a common purpose, even a shared vibe: the stillness of remembering what we had and what we lost.
Invocations of “since the 1970s” pepper Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, making the decade one of the few punctuating moments in Piketty’s otherwise glacially paced account of the patterns of wealth distribution. Since the 1970s, as Piketty’s data starkly demonstrate, private wealth has spiked upward in the West at the expense of income growth, returning us to a social landscape close to that of the fin de siècle; the Me Decade wrote the epitaph for an exceptional postwar period of relative equality that looks to be unrepeatable. In more avowedly Marxist treatments of the decade, it appears as a decisive period — one in which crucial struggles were taking place over the Big Things: the factory floor, financial markets, and global military power. Giovanni Arrighi, in The Long Twentieth Century, reads the Seventies as the moment when labor audacity in the West and decolonization in the South forced Western governments into prioritizing the interests of private high finance, which enabled them to maintain economic hegemony even as it set the stage for a long-term decline and significantly greater, and more frequent, monetary crises. Robert Brenner’s The Economics of Global Turbulence stresses the role of global manufacturing overproduction, which precipitated a vicious cycle of devaluation and cost-cutting in which workers bore the burden of austerity, a cycle that may have altered somewhat but can scarcely be said to have ended.
These competing theories present similar pictures of the decade: global tectonic shifts produced a neoliberal tsunami. Social historians naturally focus on the innumerable ground-level fights that precipitated the deluge. Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge locates a brief moment between the onset of Watergate and the Bicentennial — coincidentally, the moment depicted in several of these novels — in which a national reckoning suddenly became possible and just as suddenly was traduced. The dense, novelistic detail of Perlstein’s books has a purpose: to remind us of a friable, dispirited, suspicious country, more skeptical of its own myths, that now seems unimaginably distant. Part of that distance is due to the disappearance of the working class that still, in the mid-Seventies, commanded political and institutional power and drove mass-media representations. Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class is a narrative of the fall from class into identity; for Cowie, class becomes “identitarian” in the course of the Seventies, largely as a result of the brilliantly managed Nixonian strategy of co-opting labor by selling it cultural politics — a strategy that worked, as Cowie shows, even better than its architects could have hoped. By severing “culture” from material interests it hollowed out the identity that the white working class got as a consolation prize, leaving it resentment as its nourishment — and classically confused archetypes in its wake, such as Archie Bunker or Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon.
There’s a paradox that these narratives have to manage, however: that the moment they mourn as vigorously combative was also, in its own time, seen and felt as a nadir. The energy crises, the crap fashions, the frayed cities, Jimmy Carter’s schoolmarmish cardigan: a miasma of stagnation severe enough to inspire a Burkean kind of leftist public intellectual to diagnose a depressiveness at the heart of liberal culture. A “collective sadness” Michael Harrington called it in 1974; “the world view of the resigned” Christopher Lasch termed it in 1979. One can’t read Lasch and feel excited by the developments in social psychology he analyzed: “Today Americans are overcome not by the sense of endless possibility but by the banality of the social order they have erected against it. Having internalized the social restraints by means of which they formerly sought to keep possibility within civilized limits, they feel themselves overwhelmed by an annihilating boredom, like animals whose instincts have withered in captivity.”
The terrain in these recent novels is different from both the boredom and anhedonia analyzed during the Seventies and the transformations and shocks described by recent histories of it. The stasis and merely personal banality that Harrington and Lasch took as their culture’s disease get reinterpreted as a kind of security, an ordinariness, created and protected by the feeling of a social order slowly giving way. Harry Silver, the postmillennial narrator of Homes’s May We Be Forgiven?, faces within the novel’s first quarter a burst of personal catastrophe: in the absence of his brother, who has been confined to a psych ward after a car accident, he begins an affair with his sister-in-law; when the brother escapes, discovers the infidelity, and murders his wife in the narrator’s presence, Harry is abandoned by his wife, becomes the surrogate parent of his nephew and niece, and finds himself the baffled and largely solitary inhabitant of a Westchester suburb — an ur-1970s milieu! — where sudden traumas are the norm. Struggling to get back to work on his magnum opus on Nixon, he reflects: “I find myself craving the normal, the repetitious, the everyday, the banal. I crave the comfort of what might seem to others to be exceedingly boring. . . . But now it’s like I’m in an endless free fall, the plummeting slowed only by the interruption of being summoned to do something for someone else.” In a time when anything seems possible — “All bets are off,” he thinks — the craving is for the cushioned refuge of the mundane, which happens to be represented for him by the bygone Seventies.
How sad does one have to be to want to resuscitate the era of stagflation?Tweet
From the standpoint of literary history, this means a different sense of the Seventies mood than we might expect. Homes is cannily aware of a kind of novel and novelist for which the Seventies was famous, and in one of her cleverer motifs she pays homage to that paranoid postmodernism while showing how aslant it runs to what the Seventies might mean now. In his Westchester wanderings in the early years of our century Harry Silver occasionally runs into Don DeLillo — at a Starbucks, at a hardware store, at the mall — and finally works up the courage to ask him whether Nixon had anything to do with the Kennedy assassination; DeLillo smiles enigmatically but has no answer. (Silver’s academic subfield, Nixonology, is of course an updated version of Hitler Studies, the brainchild of Jack Gladney from DeLillo’s White Noise.) Meanwhile, in a comic subplot, an unnamed Pynchonesque conspiracy theorist shadows Harry in order to remind him that “we’re all pawns.” It’s the world of The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, surviving still in post–September 11 suburbia and providing a kind of faded glamour. But that paranoid Seventies isn’t what’s being yearned for in Homes. Instead her book gestures to another kind of Seventies novel, plotless and meandering and depressive.
Put another way, we have to remember writers like Ann Beattie. Take her first book, Chilly Scenes of Winter, from 1976, one of the great forgotten novels of a post-OPEC-embargo America. It offers us a small group of unattached young adults in dull jobs, drifting in and out of relationships. The protagonist, Charles, obsesses over Laura, the woman he dated during a hiatus in her marriage. There is plenty of aimless driving, listening to Eric Clapton or Elton John, particularly past the A-frame where Laura now lives. There are long phone calls with time for long interstitial silences. There isn’t much money — Charles works for the government — but there’s enough for a mortgage and groceries and occasionally weed. The line between working and middle class is wavering, fuzzy. And there is depression, lots of it, including that of Charles’s mother, who spends most of her time in the bathtub. A collective sadness all right, described in artfully truncated sentences that seem to end in a blank stare:
He can picture it: she is sitting in hot water. She does not put any bubble bath in the water. She just sits there, sinks down in the tub until the hot water is collarbone level. She plays the radio. If she stays long enough (she takes many of these baths a day) she reads movie magazines, and if she stays for a very long time she starts to imagine pains and she cries. Someone has to haul her out.
This is what Americans retreating to “purely personal preoccupations,” to use Lasch’s phrase, looked like: melancholy withdrawal into poorly heated A-frames.
What makes Beattie so compelling is partly her austere objectivity. She neither condemns nor idealizes, and there is nothing romantic, although there’s something grimly funny, about taking up residence in a bathtub. But almost forty years later the figure and ground have shifted places. The depression can seem not like confinement but a kind of freedom; the aimlessness can seem like spaciousness, a shambling kind of grace. Collective sadness, in other words, is a wised-up recognition of limits, of narrowed horizons — but once those limits are accepted, what freedoms exist! Particularly the freedom to not have to not be depressed. (From the song that gives Steinke’s novel its title: “Well, I tried to make it Sunday / But I got so damn depressed / That I set my sights on Monday / And I got myself undressed.” In 1975 the song reached No. 1.)
It’s not surprising that Beattie’s tropes and tones reappear in the recent attempts to summon that moment, particularly the trope of the self-confined depressive.1 Rose Angrush, the last living link to the Sunnyside Communist cell whose decline into irrelevance is Lethem’s subject, takes to television, falling in love, irony of ironies, with Archie Bunker. Groff’s Arcadia, similarly the story of the rise and fall of a radical group — a utopian rural commune in this case — lingers for a time on the mother of Bit Stone, its protagonist. During Bit’s Seventies childhood, she takes to bed in the winter, curling up into herself and refusing to communicate. Depression can, of course, be the result of the end of utopian dreams. It can also, however, take its place in a utopia — not as resistance to it, but as a sign of a difficult freedom, the freedom from the strenuous optimism utopias supposedly demand, a freedom that utopias might accidentally nurture. An anti-utopian utopia, born out of retrenchment and limits rather than expansion: that’s the yearned-for object of these historical novels. The little refusals and temporary exemptions that still seemed viable and livable amid the stirrings of American decline.
But decline of what, exactly? Here the answer is split between two possibilities. One the one hand, there’s the defeat of Sixties radicalism, the narrative that even a canny skeptic like Jameson cannot help but endorse, the blood libel the Seventies have always had to bear. A decade of relinquishment and turning inward: burying the coins in People’s Park, looking (only, and unsuccessfully) for a woman to court and spark. Steinke’s Sister Golden Hair is framed by the decline of the protagonist’s father, a radical Methodist minister, defrocked at the dawn of the Seventies, who retreats into the fuzzy-headed mysticisms that sprang up to cater to defeated leftists. Rush’s aging wits remember one of their Seventies amusements as “visiting the representatives of the fossil left, all of whom had some sort of decaying perch in Manhattan, some loft, some basement.” Lethem’s Sunnyside Gardens and Groff’s Arcadia House are both, to an extent, the worn ends of a tradition of American dissent, allegories for precisely this defeat. It is inscribed deeply into Arcadia: the crumbling house at the center of the commune was built, we learn, by a 19th-century Divinist free-love cult, whose last descendant, the “witch” Verda, remains on the land in a crumbling cottage. When Bit’s mother uses Verda’s memories to construct an oral history of Arcadia, the feeling is strong: this is the indigenous American radical left writing its obituary. The year is 1982, DEA helicopters are scoping out the commune’s primary source of income in the first wave of Reagan’s War on Drugs, Bit’s childhood is over, and soon Verda will be dead — and with her, perhaps, the American radical strain itself.
It’s a story so familiar as to be nearly a caricature. But there’s a second decline lurking here too, a larger and slower one: the end of postwar prosperity, the creeping slide into a limited world, a world of retreats into bathtubs, beds, other refuges. It’s a newer story, written from deep within the neoliberal moment, that is elegiac not for what came before the decline but for the decline itself. Again, a slightly poorer but freer world: “No one really had any money, and no one seemed to think much about not having money,” as Wolitzer puts it. The old, weird New York of the era of the fiscal crisis, when mushrooms grew in Times Square and packs of feral dogs settled on the heating grates in winter, is a frequent object of nostalgia. One of Lethem’s centerpiece scenes, set during the 1978 Halloween Parade, evokes “a city where old orders were being disassembled by flamboyance and bankruptcy and derangement,” a place coming apart, unpoliced, unashamed.
One reason you might want to have been there would be the almost dreamlike slowness of time in an era of defeat — one that lacks the unbearable, compulsory dynamism we live under. The plots of these novels themselves lack decisive conflicts or revelations, are ruminative rather than dynamic. They have the genial inconsequence of picaresque fiction, but without necessarily going anywhere: call it a stuck picaresque. Jesse, subject of Sister Golden Hair’s coming-of-age story, spends the Seventies rooted in her crummy duplex while families around her crumble, disperse, vanish. Her world, the lower-middle-class Roanoke of waitressing jobs and VA hospitals scored to Bowie and Skynyrd, is decaying and unconsoling, but it is also oddly durable. Her attachments form unpredictably and simmer for what seem like years. People, and marriages, hang together while slowly wearing out. An attempt to run away from home lasts a night only. Things happen but at the margins, to neighbors and friends; the episodic plot registers stasis more than change:
Nixon had resigned and I’d gotten my period, but not much else had changed besides my bra size. The world went on: Patty Hearst got kidnapped, Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon, and the Weathermen bombed the State Department. Though time had passed and I was now fifteen, I felt trapped like a bug in amber. I was stuck in place while my dad kept seeking.
From time to time Jesse takes out a View-Master, pushes the lever down, and clicks through the “gemlike and glorious” colors that don’t move. Few things better evoke the appeal of the Seventies, from within a neoliberal moment, than that ordinary Seventies toy: the vividness of its colors, the cheapness of its pleasures, the stasis of its scenes.
Historical fiction has always been preternaturally attracted to defeats. As much as figures like Lukács celebrated the historical novel as the first literary genre to evoke a thoroughly historicized consciousness — the sense that things change, and change progressively, and that an individual is the vector through which historical change occurs rather than a passive spectator — there remained the misgiving that historical novels’ affection for moments of defeat could give very different colorations to what historical change means. Defeat could provide a tragic dimension to what are ultimately stories of progress, or it could produce pessimism about any change, the sense that all change is in fact loss. There is defeat-as-progress in Scott or Tolstoy, in which the vanquished, such as the Stuarts or the Napoleonic French, are given due honor as a way of celebrating the advent of a modern nation; there is a different kind of defeat in, say, Flaubert, which seems instead like the corrosive sense that historical change is nothing but loss, decay, the piling up of debris and foreclosed options. It is what Lukács hated in Flaubert and later practitioners of the genre: history as elegy, antiquarianism. It seemed regressive, conservative, escapist. But Lukács is only so much help to us when it comes to these novels of the defeated, demoralized Seventies, because we might here be faced with a situation where nostalgia has radical possibilities: an unusual paradox we might call the nostalgia of anhedonia.
Since nostalgia isn’t one of the more respectable emotions — although by no means any weaker for that fact — the figures in these novels tend to have moments of bad conscience. One of the founders of the summer camp in Wolitzer’s novel thinks “dispiritedly that the main thing Spirit-in-the-Woods had created in anyone was nostalgia.” Partly out of shame for the tacky, undignified decade these characters are missing, and partly out of a more general shame for missing anything at all, the nostalgia on offer often feels like it should come with a warning label. The freedom, the aimlessness, the togetherness: all of it can seem self-indulgent, seductive, and bad for you — as if the musician Mike Watt had it right when he sang, “The kids of today should defend themselves against the Seventies!”
Let’s face it: there’s nothing cool about someone else’s sentimentality. You can feel yourself entering a complicated relationship with this fact when you read Kushner’s Flamethrowers, whose high glamour quotient sets it off from the tenderly observed shabbiness of these other Seventies stories. The novel’s narrator, named Reno after her place of origin, is like so many of the figures in these novels a wanderer, but she’s by no means stuck — indeed, she’s always on the move. A motorcycle racer and art student who heads to New York in the mid-Seventies with an inchoate ambition, Reno swiftly moves from the outskirts of the city’s conceptual art circles to its center. She is seduced by Sandro Valera, a minimalist artist and the rebellious scion of an Italian motorcycle and tire business that is running into labor troubles as the autonomistas and Red Brigades gain momentum. Through Sandro she meets the world of American conceptual artists circa 1975–77; through Sandro she is given the bike on which she will race on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah; because of Sandro she will head to Italy, become embroiled in radical demonstrations in Rome, and find herself complicit in the kidnapping of Sandro’s right-wing industrialist brother.
The mise en scène could not be cooler: the land-speed records on two wheels, the conceptual artists not yet having made it big, the Italian aristocrats and revolutionary cells. The cool, however, coexists with a nostalgia both powerful and entirely implicit, so implicit that it seems almost disavowed. Kushner chooses historical details cannily, and what they evoke — particularly in relation to the NYC of the mid-Seventies — is a world where things were still in their right places. The Mafia were still in Little Italy, where Reno watches their double-parked black limousines outside their social clubs on Mulberry Street. Artists still lived in SoHo lofts and the Chelsea Hotel, where they drank Cutty Sark and played with guns. TWA flights to Europe still took off from the flaring, molded shells of the Saarinen terminal. Lamb’s blood still puddled on Gansevoort Street. Greats walked among us, if a greatness not of the common sort: Tehching Hsieh, or someone just like him, was finishing his first One Year Performances, while Gordon Matta-Clark was in the midst of his building cuts. The historical chronology here isn’t precise: it’s a cunningly built theme park of Seventies attractions. What it transports you to is a New York restored to its preferred image of itself, and if we yearn for that (and why not?), it’s only the cool of the details that blinds us to how structurally nostalgic the presentation is.
The Flamethrowers has frequently been compared to Sentimental Education, and Reno’s enigmatic depthlessness to Frédéric Moreau’s similarly flat, floating presence. Both are unmoored urban explorers who live on the inner periphery of a revolution that fails, or fails even to begin. But the comparison is inexact, impressionistic only. Flaubert’s skepticism about the past he evokes is far more corrosive; nostalgia is produced — “that was our best time!” it famously ends — only to be ruthlessly exorcised. You could believe the time Frédéric lives through was his best time, but you’d be a fool. The Flamethrowers is much more undecided, its irony at war with a far more earnest — and, dare one say, uncool — affection for the value of what was lost. There’s a lingering belief in the now-closed freedoms of the period, its possibilities, the conjunctures that only that moment made possible, but Kushner doesn’t make it easy to locate.
Take one of the novel’s descriptions of a mythic Seventies moment, the July ’77 NYC blackout. Reno is in a Times Square screening of Behind the Green Door (which appears in Wolitzer as well: canonical porn — the inconceivable idea that at one point everyone went out of their way to watch, in one another’s company, a single pornographic film — is an essential part of the Seventies myth, too) when everything goes dark. A flaneur in a dissolving city, Reno heads out into the night:
I started the bike, flipped on the headlight, stupidly amazed for a moment that it worked, as if all units of power were directly connected to the city’s grid.
I popped from the curb and joined the shy traffic inching south on Seventh. We were like those vehicles that roll along the floor of the ocean, marking out volume with their headlights against a dark void. Everyone drove haltingly and slow. An eerie echo of sirens, louder the farther south I went.
At Union Square, women were pulling shopping carts out of Mays, multiple carts tied together and crammed with merchandise, their metal wheels making the clattering bright sound of poured money as the women dragged them along the street.
Merry Christmas, motherfuckers! a man shouted. Then he shouted it again.
Merry Christmas, motherfuckers!
As Reno glides on her motorcycle through a dark city where kids scream for everything to burn, one can reasonably feel repelled, and one can just as reasonably feel — such is the scene’s libidinal pull — that that was our best time. The combination of the two is characteristic of a memorializing nostalgia rather than longing. How thrilling that must’ve been! Still, let’s be grateful that it doesn’t happen that way anymore, right? It’s not an entirely fair response to Kushner — her sympathy for that moment, her sense of its openness, is palpable — but Reno’s dreamy affectlessness and Kushner’s smooth, liquid imagery (pouring money, rolling on the ocean floor), which mute that sympathy, make it seem like the writer wants to have it both ways.
Let’s face it: there’s nothing cool about someone else’s sentimentality.Tweet
The point isn’t to call Kushner on her nostalgia as if it’s a flaw; the point is to wonder if it’s a feature, which might have been more honest had it been more frankly acknowledged. Irony derives some of its power from distance, and some from knowingness. Those conceptual artists Reno drifts among? Many of them will hit the big time, and we know what happens to their SoHo lofts. Knowing that, we can relish their bygone experiments in that grittier NYC while amusing ourselves with the eventual fate of consecration that befell them: we can appropriate them as iconic, as valuable. Doing so, we’re not that far from treating the Seventies as yet another style that, repackaged, might make us rich.
What if you didn’t resist nostalgia, face it with political suspicion, or mask it with sophistication, but immersed yourself in it so directly that you ended up coming out its other side? You’d risk sentimentality and obviousness, but you’d have taken a stab at clarity. Certainly when you call a novel Arcadia, that’s the gamble being made. Groff’s novel is so unashamedly mythic, so frank about the loss its characters suffer and the consequences of that loss, that it turns wonder into a kind of knowledge, nostalgia into a kind of critique.
Bit Stone, born in 1968 en route to the founding of the western New York commune where he will spend his formative years — the “first Arcadian,” as he is called — is witness to the refracted transformation of American life from something ragged and loose, generously neglectful, and incoherently if earnestly utopian into something intrusively intolerant. Arcadia itself isn’t so much an exception to the outside world as its distillation, and the moments when we see it are pegged to the neoliberal mutations happening everywhere else. First we see it in 1973, the moment of maternal depression and yet of ecstatically happy immersion in organic life; then in 1982, as internal struggles and law enforcement combine to ensure Arcadia’s erasure; then in 2009, when Bit is wracked with longing for it and for the now-dispersed Arcadians who were his first loves, including the mother of his child; and then in 2018, when global warming and consequent pandemics are fast making cities uninhabitable, when Arcadia beckons again as a possible last refuge.
Groff resists the easy ironies about the commune: its difficulty achieving self-sufficiency, its struggle to produce the moral suasion it needs to function. Arcadia doesn’t fail because its ambitions were too great or too naive. It fails — and in this Groff’s lesson about the Seventies seems significant as well as surprising — because its goals were too modest. In the world born of the defeats of the Seventies, modest desires are precisely those that wither. Bit’s reflections in 2009 are baffled by the reasonableness of what the past promised, which has now, such are the dialectics of neoliberalism, become unreasonable:
He is cleaning the darkroom at the school, wondering where his dreams went. They were not so very large; they were not too heavy to carry. One legacy of Arcadia is that his push for happiness was out of sync with the world’s; his ambition was for safety, security, a life of enough food and shelter and money, books and love, the luxury of pursuing the truth by art. The luxury of looking deeply, of finding a direct path to empathy. It didn’t seem unattainable.
Instead of ironies, there’s tenderness. Safety, security, food, and shelter: the minimal desires that, when generally satisfied, make up what Cowie called the pre-neoliberal “republic of security.” It’s hard to ironize what seemed so sensible, hard not to be tender about those faced with its peculiar contemporary implausibility.
If Kushner harks back to Flaubert, Groff seems to have taken on something of a later French project, that of Zola. The interest in physical sensations as the reward of being alive, the multidecade sweep of social transformation, the incredulous anger over the fact that simple things no longer seem possible — Groff’s done something like this. “In the beginning she says: ‘I should like a little corner where I might be happy, see my children well settled. Eat bread every day, not be beaten. Die at home, etc.’” wrote Zola in his journals of one of his characters: “On the whole give her those modest desires that will never be realized.”
As stark as Groff’s historical myth is, it remains in one sense more supple than the economic theories and social histories that otherwise have such convincing explanations for the meaning of the Seventies. That suppleness isn’t some special kind of knowledge, but rather a constant bewilderment. What happened to make such modest happiness, or even a freer unhappiness, impossible? Like most of the protagonists of these novels, Bit is too young, too uncertain, to answer the question. But it seems like the role of historical fiction is to pose it. From the standpoint of Piketty’s r > g, or Arrighi’s cycles of accumulation, the brevity of the strange shabby equipoise of the Seventies seems inevitable; over Perlstein’s wealth of anecdote hovers the figure of Reagan, casting all those dreams, from the ERA to full employment, in the light of dramatic irony. A nostalgic realism like Groff’s, with its persistent wistfulness, eludes the feeling of inevitability that is, after all, neoliberalism’s best ally.
“Nostalgia is dangerous,” Groff has said in an interview; it’s the kind of commonsense admission one finds oneself making, a hedge against accusations of obsessiveness or blindness. It’s also, if you take her novel seriously, only half the truth; in not quite following that particular leftist dogma that insists that nostalgia can only vitiate and never strengthen a progressive politics, Groff’s novel is more intriguing than her disclaimer about it. This is the gamble of Arcadia, and maybe the gamble of writing with any affection about the Seventies now. What if one could imagine a nostalgia that didn’t idealize, that in fact celebrated a past moment’s stubborn resistance to idealization, that coexisted with anhedonia? The twist of these novels, Groff’s most openly among them, is that they aren’t yearning for any belle epoque — but they yearn nonetheless. Their nostos is that short moment of open dissolution, not yet needing to be denied, that now feels locked away. Why miss it? Because it was something to be trusted. Being nostalgic for it is a way of recognizing that it now seems too much to ask.
These tones, however peculiarly linked to ’70s Americana they are, bear a resemblance to an older fictional moment, itself perhaps evoking an empire stalling out: a style of Victorian British realism that Christine Smallwood, in her recently finished Columbia dissertation, calls ‘depressive realism.’ Aimlessness, meandering, a persistent but not sharp melancholy: as Smallwood has it, these are hallmarks of writers like Thackeray and Trollope. Analogies are treacherous but often revealing: might the ’70s have been our late Victorian moment? ↩