'True Believers' by Kurt Andersen: An Interview About the '60s

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The author discusses his new novel, about a woman who's hiding a secret from the mythical decade.

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This is going to sound sacrilegious, but it is my belief that Kurt Andersen's new novel, True Believers, could plausibly be included in same class as Goldblog's sixth-most-favorite Philip Roth novel, American Pastoral, which is a brilliant evocation of the dislocations, confusions, and insanities of the 1960s. Both American Pastoral and True Believers evoke the same wistful feeling in people like me who were too young for the '60s but would have liked to have understood firsthand why everyone went nuts simultaneously. Also, I would have liked to have seen Jimi Hendrix play guitar live, rather than on YouTube.

One difference between Roth and Andersen: There's more action in Andersen's book than in Roth's—but almost as many Jews!

Before I go on, let me acknowledge that Kurt is a friend-of-Goldblog, and that I worked for him in the 1990s (an inferior decade, though not as inferior as the '80s) when he was the editor of New York magazine, and that I enjoyed working for him very much.   

True Believers is a first-person account of the life of Karen Hollander, a sexy-grandma lawyer, former Department of Justice official, and almost-Supreme Court nominee (hers is what Hillary Clinton's career path might have looked like had HRC not attached herself to Bill) who has been keeping a terrible secret about something she and a band of friends plotted to do in the 1960s.  I won't reveal more, because you should read it for yourselves. I had an e-mail exchange with Kurt about the book, and about the '60s, and about one of his book's very amusing Jewish subplots. Our conversation is reproduced below.


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As I finished reading True Believers, I couldn't decide for myself whether you thought the 1960s were ultimately beneficial to the country. Yes, young people found their voice, but it turns out in some cases that it was the voice of a crazy person. And yes, the notion of radical individualism flourished, but the consequences of this notion haven't been wholly positive. The music was great, of course, but one lesson of the '60s—do what makes you feel good, or what feels right—seems to have given license to some people to become selfish without guilt. Can you, in less than a million words, tell me where things went right as a consequence of the '60s, and where they went wrong?

I think the 1960s were definitely a net positive for America and Americans. Civil rights and women's rights were unequivocal triumphs, as was the newly heightened awareness of what we then called "ecology." The greater tolerance for different kinds of people and for weirdness were excellent changes. Pop music had its awesome big-bang moment, as you say, and movies and visual art were transformed in interesting ways, and we middle-aged people now get to wear blue jeans and sneakers and go to rock concerts and generally behave as if we're young until we die.

But we threw some baby out with the bath water. The mistrust of government that blossomed in the late '60s has become a chronic and in some ways pathological condition. We got carried away with the idea of victimhood, so that now white people and Christians and Wall Street guys cast themselves categorically as victims of bigotry. The latent American tendency toward self-righteousness and apocalyptic thinking got ratcheted up. The idea of one's "own truth" started propagating, and that solipsism is now pandemic.

And as I recently argued in a Times op-ed which bugged a lot of of '60s-romanticizers on the left and libertarians on the right, I think the "if it feels good do it"/"do your own thing" paradigm of the 1960s also helped enable the greed-is-good hypercapitalism and general selfishness that grew and grew afterward.

As Walter Isaacson pointed out to me the other day, Steve Jobs is the great embodiment of both of these '60s strands. He's the ultimate Bobo, and his fellow bourgeois bohemians are the one cohort for whom both strands of the '60s legacy have been a win-win.

I think I'm almost at a million words.

You obviously have affection for your protagonist's granddaughter, Waverly, but there's also a bit of mockery in your portrayal of this polymorphously rebellious but stunningly naive (and commodified) high school senior. You've spoken about the Occupy movement as a kind of cover-band version of the rebellions of the 1960s. Why hasn't the Occupy movement achieved its goals, in the way the student protesters achieved many of their goals (and they achieved large things, including dumping LBJ, women's liberation, and so on.)

Two reasons. In the late '60s (and the early '70s, which were when The Sixties got scaled-up and rolled out to the mass market), there were two big, specific, demands: Stop the Draft and End the War. And in the '60s, too, the antiwar movement was part of and driven by the powerful and much larger new countercultural wave—sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, etc.

Whereas Occupy and kindred protesters today, while they have something of a '60s 2.0 critique of our political economy and institutions—corrupt, unfair, malign—do not have any big policy demand, and also aren't driven by a wholly distinct and exciting generational sensibility the way so many young people 40 and 45 years ago were.

Which isn't to say it couldn't happen again. Occupy in 2011 may be analogous to the left-wing protest movements in the early '60s. Maybe they just require event(s) analogous to the Vietnam War and the draft and ghetto uprisings to light the fire.

Even beyond hippies and protesters, when I was in junior high, the Generation Gap became this Major American Issue. It seemed very real. And that generation, the boomers, by staying forever youngish and maybe by being helicopter parents, has so far prevented a new generation gap from forming.

You know, it's funny, your last thought caused me to realize that my children can't rebel against my music, because their music is my music. Do you know how thrilled I was to see them embrace Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Cream? I mean, that sort of thing didn't happen in the '60s. Maybe I'm not giving them enough space to rebel. There's really something to your theory.

As for your kids' music being your music, and that generation-gap-lessness being weird but pleasurable (and pre-modern): absolutely. It also connects to my other recent hobbyhorse about the cultural ice age that started 25 years ago. Someday I will merge it all into my personal Theory of Everything.

And as for Israel, it just...came up as I was writing, the way things do in fiction. There was no plan. But once I'd invented my apostate-lefty neocon character Buzzy, a guy who went from hard-left to hard-right during the 1970s and '80s, it seemed like an issue that would be important to him in the present day—partly because it permits him to feel the sort of righteous black-and-white New Left conviction he felt when he was young in the late 1960s. The fact that  Buzzy is a conservative Christian made his Likudite passion more interesting to me. And then, too, it seemed apt that modern Israel came into being geopolitically in 1967, around the time half my novel takes place.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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