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Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens – TLS


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.

Jonathan Lethem at Occupy Wall Street, 2011.

Jonathan Lethem at Occupy Wall Street, 2011.

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 can 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.

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