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Esquire
Wednesday, April 12th, 2006


 

1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America

by Andreas Killen

A Year, Examined

A review by Anna Godbersen

The historical project organized around a single year is a strange animal. While it promises to give a truer flavor of a past era than a book about a single person or a fixed series of events, it also opens the door to over-labored connection and irrelevant anecdote. Such, anyway, are the fruits and faults of Andreas Killen's 1973 Nervous Breakdown, a cultural history of that year, whose subject and style are aptly reflected by the strutting, hysteria-tinged tone of its title. 1973 was the year that the Paris peace accords brought troops home from Vietnam, and the year that Watergate heated up. It was the golden age of skyjacking and the year Erica Jong's Fear of Flying was published. It was the year of the first reality television program, An American Family, on PBS, and a year when Andy Warhol's statement that "everyone, absolutely everyone was tape-recording everyone else," would prove to extend to the president of the United States. In cultural moment after cultural moment, Killen sees an erosion of the social order and a crisis in American confidence, and he describes it in heady, psychological terms. With the fall of Nixon and the expulsion of dad on An American Family, it was a year that encapsulated "a decade of oedipal crisis." And it was also a year, with its recurring themes of security and surveillance, reality and image, that foreshadowed our own era.

1973 Nervous Breakdown is essentially an academic book, and it frustrates for all the reasons academic books usually frustrate; Killen is a little too fond of epigraphs, and he has a tendency to let the research overwhelm his narrative, and sometimes his point. Still, the information he collects here is extensive, eclectic, and, in most cases, elegantly linked. He is inventive and far-reaching in his portrait of 1973, and even-handed in his analysis of how its preoccupations have affected where we are today.


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