“Wishing to get on terms with an acknowledged surrealist, we took him to a café…” so Mrs Jones, the narrator of Mina Loy’s neglected modernist novel, explains her first encounter with Insel, the tramp artist. In the watering holes of 1930s Paris, at the Lutetia Hotel and the Dôme café, they develop a relationship of mutual “parasitism”: she feeds and sometimes houses the derelict painter, he tolerates her plans to improve his life or write his biography. “Don’t over do it”, he suggests, but over-doing it is precisely what Mrs Jones has in mind. As her theories about this “will-o’-the-wisp” man become more intricate, Insel himself becomes less and less substantial, an abstract collection of rags and bones. She understands that the poverty of many artists means they may become, like Insel, con men, preying upon “the hospitalities of modest little women”. But his destitution fascinates her and she treats it seriously, finding in his unworldliness a parallel to her own artistic struggle to renounce the forms of a masculine universe.
More dangerously, and typical of a long line of bohemians fascinated by life in the gutter, she is tempted by his negative credo: “One must die”, with its promise of self-eradicating bliss. As the unlikely friends sit in yet “another stray café”, the modern city flickers before their eyes – car lights, hoardings, electric signs – but little intrudes on Mrs Jones’s passionate contemplation. Before the world recedes entirely, however, and Insel draws her into self-annihilation, a striking clock snaps her back into the here and now, and makes her put up a fight.
Insel, Loy’s only novel, was written in the mid-1930s and inspired by her relationship with the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze. It remained unpublished until 1991 and now gets a second outing from Melville House with a new ending unearthed from the archives suggesting morphine addiction as a key to Insel’s behavior. This is an intriguing addition, but waylaying, as the novel’s interest lies not in his unfeasible ‘character’, but in Mrs Jones’s fervent analysis of what he means to her. She alone perceives Insel’s “intrinsic quality” as someone “too surrealistic for the surrealists”, and the novel represents her battle to be “let…in on” the occult mystery of the “rays” he transmits, to “get at” his tantalizing “aura” (Insel is so ethereal, he is no longer capable of actually painting), to claim for herself his quasi-metaphysical powers of vision.
As we have suspected all along, the odd couple’s “uncanny intimacy” turns out to be a more one-sided affair: Insel’s irreality may be seductive but it is also comically enfeebling. His ineptitude and dependency do not make him much of a sparring partner and Mrs Jones appears increasingly to be boxing with a phantom (“I must have always known he had never the slightest idea of what I was talking about”), her target is not the man, but an image of a patriarchal and disengaged avant-garde that has let “present actuality…go hang”. Mrs Jones’s final victory then is wrested from within herself. Rejecting once and for all Insel’s charismatic “death’s-head” (the novel’s original title), she declares, rather, “One must be ripe”. Taking leave of the unearthly vagrant, with a renewed determination for her own art, she turns back to life.
Salman Rushdie once observed that migration was the “most common experience of the twentieth century”, but this, in the main, involved movement from one country to another. In the twenty-first century it looks as if more and more of us will have peripatetic lives. Ineluctably, despite pockets of resistance, we are becoming more mobile and mixed. Jamal Mahjoub is one of a new group of writers who personify this condition. His interests, tastes and understanding of power are all influenced by being part of the diaspora. But unlike his father who was exiled from his home in Sudan, Mahjoub is of a generation of willing travellers, nomads constantly in search of new chances and other ways of thinking or being.
Of English and Sudanese descent, Mahjoub has, so far, lived in London, Liverpool, Khartoum, South Wales, Sheffield, Aarhus, Cairo and Barcelona. His wandering has given birth to a prolific body of work: seven books of literary fiction under his own name, and three crime novels as “Parker Bilal”, the latest of which, The Ghost Runner, has just been published. This pseudonym, made from the names of his grandfathers – a Nubian boatman on the Nile, and a German refugee in England who anglicised his name – celebrates his disparate inheritance. But there are dilemmas raised by such diversity. During his recent visit to London, I asked Mahjoub if anyone ever questioned his authenticity or right to speak? “That’s exactly the position a writer like myself is in. Because you don’t have a people behind you and are not speaking from within an established voice – whether that is national or literary – you question: what tradition do I belong to? I don’t think many people would include me as a British writer. Do you include me as a Sudanese writer? Well no, not really, because I don’t write in Arabic.”
Many of his novels explore this conundrum, often through loosely autobiographical stories, though he is not interested in himself so much as the way in which someone like him, roaming through Africa and Europe, makes sense of the world, and brings new meaning to it. “Books, to my mind, are, by definition, about other people: I don’t write specifically to know about me, I certainly don’t write to justify me. I write about things that fascinate me about the world, to understand other people and perspectives.” When he tells me that he’s currently reading Karl Ove Knausgård in Danish (he lived in Denmark for a decade), I wonder what he makes of this writer who became a global literary sensation with a six-volume study of himself? “It’s very Scandinavian. What strikes you about Scandinavia is that it makes people independent from an early age. Your rights as an individual mean that you can afford an apartment for yourself, you get subsidy from the state. You have a right to vote, but many people don’t exercise that right. There’s a lot of cynicism and a huge amount of self-absorption. They have all these tremendous opportunities and yet it’s all geared to making things more comfortable for the individual, not about changing the world or caring for others.”
When I ask him if a novel can change the world, his answer is both sceptical and passionate: “No, I don’t think so. I do believe, though, that at some point culture can change things. A lot of the popular sentiment for black South Africa was encouraged by Paul Simon’s album, Graceland, even though it was criticized at the time [for breaking the boycott of Apartheid goods]. People listened to that record who had never listened to African musicians before and that changed their perception. It had a huge influence. Do we really change the world? No. But I think we have to try.”
The variety of Mahjoub’s writing makes him hard to categorize. All of it, though, is characterized by intellectual restlessness, and much concerns the tension between modernity and tradition. The first three novels comprise a trilogy about Sudan. He looks at the late twentieth century nation, divided between desert people and city-dwellers trying to become part of the contemporary world; then the pan-African period through the eyes of an exile in postwar France; and finally, Sudan’s failed struggle for independence at the end of the nineteenth century. The Carrier draws on Mahjoub’s training as a geologist and shifts back and forth between the present day and the Enlightenment, between Algeria, Spain and Denmark. Nubian Indigo is about the raising of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s and its impact on the ancient people and culture it displaced. Then there are two novels about mixed-race families: Travelling with Djinns, in which a father and son take a road trip (“Europe is my dark continent, and I am searching for the heart of it”), and The Drift Latitudes, tracing one family through the twentieth century, by way of a German U-boat, a Liverpool jazz club, and a garden in Sudan.
Perhaps another reason for Mahjoub’s abundant output is his sense that the complex subjects he’s addressing are likely to be met with bias, and finding the voice in which to express them is mired with difficulty – so you have to keep making the attempt from new angles. In Travelling with Djinns, the main character is attacked on all sides for misrepresenting Sudan. In his own life, Mahjoub has had similar experiences: “Because my first novel about Khartoum is quite critical, the people who liked it were old communist friends of my father and radical political activists who had spent time in prison: they thought it should have been more critical. Many of the middle class, comfortable Sudanese, though, wanted a more complimentary portrait. But, for me, at that age, the purpose of writing was to change the world, to make people aware of what had happened, because I felt, strongly, that Sudan had become this wasted opportunity. There were so many things that could have gone right that had gone wrong, and blaming the British and the colonial era was just not enough anymore.”
If there were those among his acquaintances who disapproved of his books, literary critics have been united in their praise. But, as often happens with writers who can’t be packaged in easily marketable categories, Mahjoub’s publishers failed to propel him into the limelight. So he has opened a second strand in his career. With the Parker Bilal series, his aim is to write detective novels for half the year and earn enough to finance the “Jamal” books he concentrates on the rest of the time – which is not to say that writing crime fiction is a compromise. He’s been a fan of the genre since childhood, finding Sherlock Holmes’s estrangement, or Conan Doyle’s mysteries, more hospitable than much literary fiction: “Writers such as Ian McEwan or Martin Amis”, he wrote recently, “describe worlds that were keenly defined as places where someone like myself simply would not fit in.” Unsurprisingly, then, his own detective, Makana, is also a precarious figure, having fled from hard-line Islamists in Sudan only to encounter another round of bullies and tyrants in Egypt.
“Ever since I’d first gone to Cairo [after his family were exiled there in 1989], I had wanted to write about this fascinating place, a vast city full of amazing history and a modernity which is completely skewed. It felt then like Paris just before the revolution: you had tremendous poverty on the streets and this wealthy class who were almost hermetically sealed off.” Into this world, Mahjoub brings Makana, a man, like Cairo itself, poised between the old and the new: “He is modern in his outlook, not fazed by women taking part in society and being able to move around freely. But he’s also old-fashioned in his chivalry, duty and dedication to the truth.” It is Makana’s liminal status as an exile that makes him such an adept navigator of the city, able to fade into the background because nobody pays attention to an African migrant. But when someone is needed to investigate a problem, being an outsider makes him highly employable: the system in Egypt is so corrupt that no one trusts the authorities.
Alongside the Makana series (seven more are planned, running as far as the revolution in 2011), Mahjoub is working on a novel about England in the 1980s. He wants to explore the alienation he felt as a young man, newly arrived in the country, mixed with the heady excitement of a culture that, briefly, seemed to embrace everyone: in the music of Two-Tone and Rock Against Racism, the books of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, and in films such as Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Launderette. This moment of solidarity ended, he feels, with the fatwa against Rushdie: the umbrella community was shattered as the global divide between East and West came to dominate even parochial politics.
Mahjoub is also writing a non-fiction book about Sudan, which he hopes will encapsulate many of his earlier themes in a Sebaldian mix of memory, reflection and philosophy: “It’s a form that I like: creative non-fiction that allows the imagination in.” His expectations for this new work may not be as world-changing as those he cherished for his first novel, but he continues to have faith that his writing can extend our understanding: “It is the presence of your voice which changes the balance of the way people see the world. Without you being there, the cultural horizon that people have will be less. It will be Martin Amis.”
This is a different version an an article that appeared on Al Jazeera’s website on 23.5.2014 as ‘Jamal Mahjoub: novelist, nomad and not Martin Amis‘.
This is perhaps the perfect moment for a new biography of Colette – the provincial girl who arrived as an ingénue in fin de siècle Paris, wrote a handful of sensational best-sellers under her husband’s name, kissed her lesbian lover on stage at the Moulin Rouge, worked the halls in semi-nude revue shows, only to emerge as a respected cultural doyenne: theatre critic, literary editor of Le Matin, author of fifty novels, and the first French woman to be honoured with a state funeral. Colette’s triumphant, picaresque life, her glorious refusal to be hemmed in by society or to recognize her place in it, make her an ideal role-model for today’s self-fascinated young, equally disposed to role-playing and self-mythology.
In her new biography, however, Jane Gilmour is more interested in what Colette means to her personally than in exploring how the writer’s life and work anticipate any modern self-preoccupation. As with Rebecca Mead’s recent book, My Life in Middlemarch, Gilmour is not content with a portrait of her subject alone, she has to put herself into the story. So she pursues her heroine (“she was like a confidante, a friend”), eating where the gourmande ate, sleeping where the free-lover slept in a variety of country houses, castles and hotels in Paris, Brittany and Provence. The result is a literary travelogue that conveys Colette’s talent for the good life, and gives a serviceable introduction to her work. But after several conventional biographies and Julia Kristeva’s eulogy to Colette’s linguistic “genius” (2004), Gilmour misses the opportunity for a truly ‘personal’ reading: one that engages with the challenges still presented by a woman whose self-regard was so immense, and pursuit of her own interests so steadfast, that she never entertained the idea of women as the second sex. What Gilmour does with this instead is to frown in disapproval: “There have been times when I have not particularly liked the Colette that has revealed herself to me over the course of this journey.”
Colette’s France is generously padded with contemporary portraits, handwritten letters, theatre posters, and photographs by Gilmour of pretty French scenes, all designed in a découpage style. The flower border running along the bottom of every page is a nod to the “earth mother”, Colette’s most nostalgic and quite possibly fraudulent persona, given the neglect of her daughter and affair with a teenage stepson. However, the book’s appealing displays cannot disguise its lack of original analysis. Colette’s was “a particularly feminine sensibility”, Gilmour asserts, “her narcissism dominates”. Well, quite. But without an examination of what this narcissism meant, how it permeated her work and made her so indomitable, Colette is reduced to a collection of traits, susceptible to judgments about her likeability.
Helen Oyeyemi is becoming one of our most adept demythologizers, constantly teasing out the loose ends of old stories to see what room there may be for new interpretations. Her previous novel, Mr Fox, concerns an author who is persuaded by his imaginary muse to invent variations on the Bluebeard tales that are his stock in trade. The muse hopes they can reach a deeper understanding of the violence in his work, thereby altering its deadly dynamic. Before Mr Fox, Oyeyemi published contemporary treatments of the ghost story, in The Icarus Girl, and the haunted house story, in White is for Witching. As her career progresses, she is developing into the kind of writer A.S. Byatt described in Possession, one whose strong readings of stories seem “wholly new”, while appearing to have been “always there”. In her latest book this is even more strikingly apparent. Boy, Snow, Bird reimagines ‘Snow White’, that tale of mothers and mirrors, and sets it in America at the birth of the civil rights movement. As old as the story is, and as often as it has been reworked, Oyeyemi finds meanings that we have failed to notice, even when they were staring us in the face.
Many of the characters in Boy, Snow, Bird show what is often called inhuman cruelty to one another, but Oyeyemi assigns the traditional evil of the Grimm Brothers’ story to the mirror, and not, finally, to any of them. The mirror’s insidious question, “Who is the fairest of them all?”, lies behind everything that happens in this novel where people are obsessed with surface appearance and no one looks the way they feel. As in Angela Carter’s refashioned tales in which monsters are, as the critic Lorna Sage saw, “marinated in being” (that wolf-man eating a young girl is also an image of famine), so here the mirror retains its shaman power, while being unmistakably, a product of poisonous human relations. Oyeyemi reinvigorates her narratives – the fairy tale, and the ugliness of racism in postwar America – by concentrating on those elements that have the potential to change our view of the story, particularly the enigma of origins. As it transpires in two shocking revelations, no one in Boy, Snow, Bird is who or what they seem.
The book is structured in three parts and begins with Boy – a girl of whitest hair and blackest eyes, but also just a “jumpy kid” with a hardboiled attitude – describing her wretched, motherless, life with her father in New York. He is a rat catcher, as terrifying as any Hamelin piper or demon to come out of the ancient German forests, but whose sinister cast is more suggestive of the mean streets of twentieth century America. After he ties Boy up in the basement and assaults her with his rats, she flees, taking a bus to the end of the line in Flax Hill, Massachusetts, where she finds lodging in an all-women boarding house (a nod to Little Women, the first story Oyeyemi rewrote as an adolescent). She starts dating a widower, Arturo Whitman, who, like many of the townspeople, is a craftsman. One night on a back street, outside a brambled house wreathed in the “the smell of baking chocolate-chip cookies”, she catches a glimpse of his beautiful daughter, Snow. Something about the child and this set-up seems staged, a falseness all the more disturbing for being oddly familiar.
Oyeyemi – a reader of Jack Zipes and Marina Warner – manages expertly to insert her fairy tale into a modern landscape. Flax Hill has some of Hitchcock’s small town uneasiness and its craftsmen, a medieval quality that is part worker drone, part wizard (Arturo makes Boy strange jewelry in the shape of snakes and chains); one woman is described as “corpselike” until a man comes along to awaken her “vivacity”. There are dissident elements, too, people not slumbering in the past but living ahead of their time, and seeming oddball because of it. Boy forms friendships with the independent woman running the bookshop who allows black kids to bunk off school and read her books without paying for them. And there is Mia, a journalist, writing an idiosyncratic article (“wacky”, Boy calls it) about the secret life of blondes.
Boy’s sympathies are with these outliers and “imposters”, but she marries Arturo because of the stability he offers, becoming step-mother to Snow. Arturo’s mother, Olivia, is enchanted by the strangely alluring child, but Boy remains distrustful, finding her words empty, her daintiness menacing. When Boy’s own child, Bird, is born “coloured”, these suspicions are confirmed: the Whitmans are exposed as liars, passing for white, and the fair Snow, a product of their “calculated breeding”. Boy’s reaction is cruel and to type: she rejects her stepdaughter, sending her to live with Arturo’s darker sister, who, as a child, was herself sent away from home in order to preserve the family myth of whiteness.
During a recent talk at a London bookshop, Oyeyemi said she revised Boy, Snow, Bird after watching Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s film set in the run-up to the American Civil War. She did not say what prompted the alterations, but in the film, the man who buys Django out of slavery tells him the legend of Siegfried, and hails him as just such a hero. The story helps Django to see himself in a new light and encourages him in his quest for freedom. In the same way, in Boy, Snow, Bird old stories are constantly shared, tested and reinvented in an effort to shape the present: Boy collaborates with Mia on her blondes article, adding a fable about a serpentine woman who will not yield to any man’s image of her – the baleful snake from her bracelet becoming now a sign of strength; while Snow doubts the probability of Cinderella’s subservience to her step-mother.
Yet this is also a novel about stories that should not be disseminated. In this, it shares ground with Carter’s novel Shadow Dance (1965), in which she introduces another manipulative, vacuous girl, worshipped by all for her white beauty. In an act of sheer authorial rage, Carter crucifies her, attempting to kill off this undying nightmare of the feminine ideal. The fate Oyeyemi deals to Snow is not lethal, but she is sent away to her aunt for re-education, and held at bay in the story – her white heat too incinerating for those she comes into contact with. Boy’s daughter Bird takes over the narration after Snow leaves Flax Hill, and the sisters exchange letters, although the younger girl remains uncertain if Snow is “phony”. Unlike Carter’s blonde, who is clueless about her meaning, Snow senses the poison within her and is spooked by it. Her dawning understanding of what she represents is one of the few signs of progress that we have made in the fifty years that separates the two novels – though Oyeyemi still makes a point of not allowing Snow her turn to narrate, leaving Boy to play out the story.
In the final section Mia tracks down Boy’s mother, whose life turns out to have been the cruellest of all, and the women are brought together in a bid to rescue her. In the last sentence Boy says of her mother-in-law Olivia, “I told her to wait there, and that we’d be back for her”, demonstrating her control over Olivia’s deforming story, but also making a narrative promise that there can be a way out of the myth she has constructed, that no one need be left behind in its rotten plot. Except, perhaps, for the troubling Snow. The ending is ambiguous and doubt remains over whether she will be released from her quarantine – as if Oyeyemi were acknowledging that some characters cannot be made over and there are, after all, limits to the power of demythologizing.
This review appeared in the TLS on 21.3.2014 as ‘Whitest Hair and Blackest Eyes’.
Here’s a link to my Al Jazeera article: “As awards near, Oscar refusenik Luise Rainer stands out for her defiance“.
The new VIDA count of gender parity in book reviewing revealed today that the while the situation at many small literary magazines and journals – and at the prestigious Paris Review – has improved, nothing much has changed at the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books. In both magazines in 2013, female reviewers comprised roughly a quarter of male, and books by women were reviewed only a third as often as books by men. This, despite the fact that the latest report on the subject confirms women read more.
Radio 4’s Open Book recently featured a segment on women’s writing and reviewing, discussing the outcry - lead by Kathryn Heyman - at the LRB’s poor showing in the VIDA index, and looking at the Twitter campaign, #ReadWomen2014, begun by Joanna Walsh (@Badaude), which draws attention to the continued neglect of women writers. The LRB were unable to appear on Open Book but sent a letter to the programme to explain their position. Although their letter has not been published (despite many requests), thanks to Viv Groskop, who transcribed it, we know what the LRB thinks the problem is: “Women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces.” “Men”, on the other hand: “are not so frightened of asserting themselves. And they’re not so anxious to please.”
How else to read this other than as provocation? Rather than taking the opportunity to reflect upon why in the twenty first century, a magazine like the LRB – devoted to literature and politics – features so few women, they react as if they are under attack and come out fighting: “Counting is a feminist weapon”, they assert. But the implication is that it’s a blunt one, which those incapable of literary nuance resort to in order to make their argument. While women may be weapon-wielding in the eyes of the LRB, they are, at the same time, poorly armed when it comes to the job of criticism: “They often prefer not to write critically about other women.” Finally the LRB insist that there are more pressing matters for women to worry about: “the pay gap… rape conviction rates and a thousand things that are more important than the proportion of women who write book reviews.”
What’s perhaps most galling about the LRB response, though, is that it makes no reference to women’s writing itself, and appears to be speaking into a critical void – arguing that few women are good enough for the LRB pages because women are still so “newly arrived in the country”. It is this remark that concerns me the most. At a stroke, it denies the history of women’s literary criticism, which, above all else, has concerned itself with the problem of creating tradition in a hostile “country”, one that continually insists women writers are orphaned outsiders, without precedence. Despite this, and against those who try to ignore, traduce or patronize women as biologically unsuitable to write (mistaking a pen for a penis), a women’s canon has been built. Neglected authors from across the centuries have been brought back into the light and entered into conversation, helping young women writers to see that others before them have battled with feelings of outlandishness and isolation, and in the process to understand why these are at the core of so much writing by women.
Perhaps the best response to this latest dismissal is to remind ourselves of some of the most important works in this tradition. As #ReadWomen2014 suggests, we all need to extend our familiarity with women writers, but we should ensure that there is among our reading those works of criticism and theory that have sought to contextualize, illuminate, reflect upon and celebrate the history of women’s writing.
When an interviewer at the Paris Review suggested to Jonathan Lethem that compared to other writers they both knew he didn’t “seem to care much about politics”, the author responded with admirable forbearance: “Can you possibly understand? It’s personal. It’s there in my work”. Politics, after all, runs in Lethem’s blood. His formative years were spent accompanying his parents on demonstrations, and he was sent by them, as a matter of principle, to schools in poor neighbourhoods: “My life was a demonstration”. Some of what he felt about this upbringing is reflected in his loosely autobiographical novel, The Fortress of Solitude (2003). Set initially in the 1970s in pre-gentrified Brooklyn, it is the story of a child of white bohemian parents, whose mother absconds, leaving him a rather defenceless oddity among the area’s black and Puerto Rican kids, the target of relentless bullying. But as he grows up the boy develops intense friendships, and there are cross-cultural alliances to negotiate, puzzling questions of authenticity to unravel. By adulthood, he has indeed learnt some of the hard lessons of class and race in America – the kind of understanding his privately educated university friends are signally deprived of – but these are gained at a cost, and there is a vague but animating resentment in the novel towards the people and politics that required his emblematic suffering.
In Lethem’s new novel, Dissident Gardens, this theme of political instrumentalism is developed in a critique of the American Left, exploring the path from the New Deal to the Occupy movement through the lives of two intertwined families. In the past his fiction (eight novels, one novella and three collections of stories) has often been presented from the view of the outsider or freak, living in the shadow of giants, and in Dissident Gardens this rather paranoid perspective prevails once again, as successive generations try to survive and make sense of their stronger predecessors. (Lethem was prompted to write this novel by his curiosity about his grandmother’s mid-century radicalism and the legacy of her formidable personality on those who followed in her wake.) This double view allows Lethem to have fun with the drama of revolutionary politics while remaining wary of its self-intoxications, to argue for the Left’s sometimes overlooked role in the American story while considering its many illusions and failures. In this, the novel is reminiscent of the fiction of Christina Stead – a writer Lethem admires, and one of the few to have understood the charisma of the communist movement, while treating it unromantically. Lethem’s suspicion of power also expresses something of the uncertain moment out of which Dissident Gardens is written, when many are trying once again to find a way of connecting to a movement defaced by authoritarianism, whose idealism, as he writes memorably here, “floated free of history, like smoke”.
The novel opens with a scene of high drama, introducing the domineering figure of Rose Zimmer, “the Red Queen” and a “hammer of a personality” – a second generation Russian Jew now stirring up the residents of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. One evening in the autumn of 1955, a grotesque “living room trial” at her home (a scene surely modelled on the dinner party trial in Stead’s I’m Dying Laughing) leads to Rose’s expulsion from the Communist Party: her crime: “fucking black cops”, or at least one in particular. The night ends with her head in the oven – an equally monstrous piece of theatre designed to mortify her daughter, Miriam, whom she has just discovered trying to lose her virginity. Rose’s fall from grace with an organization that has long since abandoned dialectic for dictatorship abounds with irony, for its tyranny so perfectly embodies her own: “She wanted to free the world but she enslaved any motherfucker she got in her clutches”, is the scathing verdict of her lover’s son, Cicero Lookins, whom Rose helps to educate. The knowledge Cicero acquires at her side is bitter-tasting: seeing the indignation and disgust their companionship arouses, and Rose’s revelling in it, he gains an inkling of his involuntary “brazenness”. Like the boy in The Fortress of Solitude, he is enlightened as he is exploited as a symbol.
Rose’s desire to emancipate people is genuine but it also gratifies her need for power. She patrols the streets as a community activist, “spying, gossiping, interrogating”, and after her husband (a German Jew) is dispatched by the Party to the GDR, her controversial choice of lover is a man in uniform, a married, Eisenhower-voting black cop. Though ironic and intelligent, Rose treats those around her with “punitive ferocity” – testimony to the “European chains [that] could never be shrugged off”; she remains contemptuous of America’s sunny fable, of its citizens’ endless attempts to build utopia and levitate out of history. The Party’s own need to exercise control is shown in its outraged response to Rose’s adultery. Her expulsion reflects hypocritical sexual and social attitudes – a horror of non-conformity quite at odds with the lives of its more free-thinking members and fellow travellers. This is just the first of many failures to see the world as it is that Lethem identifies: it is not communism that is the future, but the dreaded bohemianism. Rose’s fall presages the Party’s own, “the night communism died”, after Khrushchev made public the crimes of Stalin. Cut adrift, she lingers on in increasing isolation, incapable of the sociability her daughter, Miriam, now a commune-inhabiting hippie, excels at. However, traces of the mother’s presumption also infect the child: when Miriam, a veteran of innumerable causes, applies to join the Freedom Riders, thinking, “Who better to go and transform Mississippi?”, she is astonished to find herself turned down for the part. A black assessor coolly informs her that though he doesn’t doubt her “nerves of steel”, what’s wanted from white people now is the ability to listen and be led, to understand that it is their turn to sit at the back of the bus.
In his second collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence (2011), Lethem wrote something of a manifesto for twenty-first-century writers: forged in the broad spectrum of culture, understanding as much from Coltrane as from Calvino that art is promiscuous, and seeing influence not as evidence of weakness but a source of ecstatic communion. It is precisely because he is at home in the vast “Ocean of Story” (Stead) – borrowing here, quoting there, learning everywhere – that Lethem has thought so hard about authenticity and appropriation, about who has the right to tell a story. Most of his fiction alights on this question. In Dissident Gardens, it is played out notably in a discussion of folk music, or rather of the “Pseudo-Folk” that James Agee railed against. Miriam marries an Irish singer, Tommy Goghan, and encourages him to set to music the stories of New York’s Bowery bums. But his efforts coincide with Dylan’s electrification – so dismaying to many on the Left who revered folk and blues as the music of the people (poor, rural, black). The new sound takes hold and Tommy’s acoustic album ends up in the remainder bins.
Lethem once said in interview that “the people I come from . . . name who they are and how they feel” through books, music and art; as a writer, he has a very modern sense of the power of cultural identification and the misery of cultural awkwardness. Tommy’s failure to transform himself from a phoney crooner into a defining American voice, capable of speaking about the times in the way that Dylan did; to become viable and hip in the way that Norman Mailer (to whom Lethem tips his hat in Dissident Gardens) describes in “The White Negro” – is partly bad luck, but also a result of the Left making a fetish of authenticity and, once again, misreading the moment. A decade later, Miriam and he, having deposited their young son, Sergius, in a Quaker school, end up in Nicaragua, still singing the old tunes, still failing to understand what is going on around them: this time with fatal consequences.
So it is the adult Sergius who comes in search of the story, driving to Maine to find Cicero, now a Professor of Critical Theory, in the hope that he cane supply information about the family that abandoned him. One of the novel’s inspired set pieces sees the 300-pound Cicero take the feeble Sergius for a dip in the Atlantic. They bob among the waves, a part of the same story but oceans apart: Sergius, the very symbol of the Quaker lamb, the son sacrificed to his family’s beliefs; and Cicero, the brilliant, satanic outcast, now wielding his “brazenness” against an audience of flinching students. Sergius, of course, cannot understand the older man’s cruelty, nor is he capable of deciphering his name, Lookins: black and gay, doomed to minstrelsy, from the side of the story that never really got a look-in. Between Cicero’s dry academic theorizing and Sergius’s incomprehension they represent what remains of a once-vital movement.
There are other ways of viewing this story of course, but Lethem’s suggestion that the Left was fatally drawn to the structures of power it sought to dismantle is hard to refute. In her dotage Rose engages in a fantasy affair with the notoriously reactionary TV character, Archie Bunker, finding an odd solace in his company – her dream seeming now no more fantastic than the ideology by which she and so many others lived. But this is not to say that Lethem’s is a work of apostasy. Rather, it is a reckoning that pays the compliment of taking these defiant people as seriously as they took themselves – believers, yes, but in all their haphazard human contingency. It is a novel long overdue.
Finally, unable to discover in the past a consoling or usable solidarity, Sergius drifts into the arms of a young woman from an Occupy camp. Her sloppy talk is the opposite of Cicero’s devastating oratory or Miriam’s precocious erudition, but she grasps innately the defining new idea in politics: it is not something organized on high and done to others, but what you do yourself – “you big dummy . . . it’s whatever you are right now”. The book ends in a manner Lethem is fond of, with a character taken to some “crucial indefinite space” – a blank page where there’s room for new ideas. This time a minor airport brings the isolated, unsuspecting Sergius up against the power of the state. A confusion of meaning over the words “fellow traveller” fires up the story once again. The defiant heart beats on.
This review appeared as ‘It’s all politics’, in Times Literary Supplement, 15.1.2014.