Here come the bohemians
Jonathan Lethem has become the leading American novelist of his generation by chronicling the hopes and failures of the Left, writes Fatema Ahmed
This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.
In the introduction to his essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem explains – and it’s not a complaint: “I’m aware that having this bloggish book issued in boards by a major corporate publisher in 2011 is, precisely, a measure of the aristocratic privilege accorded me by the novelist’s role.” Not every novelist gets this kind of privilege; and having liner notes for albums, or posts for Powell’s Bookstore website, printed on to dead trees is now harder than it’s ever been. But by the time the book was published, Lethem had been as successful as an American novelist could hope to be, for a decade. Between Motherless Brooklyn (1999), which won the National Book Critics Circle Prize, and The Fortress of Solitude (2003), Lethem became a writer whose books are anticipated. He also seemed to be moving away from shorter novels rooted in genre such as Gun with Occasional Music (1994), a noirish science-fiction story, to sprawling, harder-to-categorise works; Fortress of Solitude combines a coming-of-age story with something rather weirder, and spans three decades.
However, in The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem gives a much livelier account of his writing and of his career than I just have, presenting himself for closer inspection as a writer, and as a reader, than most writers ever do. He also comments on the “non-fictions” included; on what he doesn’t like about them, or why they were written. He explains – and it’s not an apology: “I can’t help being the self-conscious kind of artist.” The danger of being the other kind is that you might not notice that “what’s taken as natural in our experience of everyday life could actually be a construction as well”. Lethem is making space for himself, but not the kind that Jonathan Franzen fills, “a novelist-shaped vacancy on the cover of Time”. Manny Farber’s 1962 polemic “White Elephant Art vs Termite Art” is his model. For Farber, “white elephant art” clings to old forms and is “well-regulated”; “termite art” burrows away with “a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything”. For Lethem, “This book is loaded with evidence of what termite moves you can still try to bust in an elephant suit.”
So at first glance, Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, the story of three generations of American Communists, is a surprisingly conservative offering: a family “saga” (in the blurb of the US edition), or “epic” (the British version). The novel begins in autumn 1955, with Rose Zimmer née Angrush, a Yiddish-speaking veteran of the Popular Front, being expelled from the local cell of the Communist Party in Queens, New York; her comrades disapprove of Rose’s enthusiasm for “civil rights” – her affair with a married black policeman. Rose’s husband Albert left her and their seven-year-old daughter Miriam in 1947 for East Germany, again at the prompting of the Party. Miriam, when we first meet her, is a worldly teenager with “the outer-borough kid’s connoisseurship of a Greenwich Village culture that was her inheritance if she demanded it”. She grows up just in time for the early-’60s Village folk scene, where she meets and marries Tommy Gogan, a mediocre folk singer from Ulster, whose career will soon be obliterated by Bob Dylan’s. Miriam’s older cousin Lenny (real name “Lenin”) has hopeless dreams of creating a Communist baseball league – and there’s also Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s policeman, who’s taken up by first Rose and then Miriam. Formally, the past and present are connected by Sergius, the son of Miriam and her folk singer, visiting Cicero for stories of his parents, who died in Nicaragua in 1979. “Gay, black and overweight” Cicero left Queens for Princeton and now teaches at a liberal arts college, in a New England town with – it’s 2011 now – a small Occupy encampment.
Dissident Gardens is an episodic novel full of gaps and silences. It’s unusually generous to its characters, each of whom is presented from their own point of view for a long stretch. On a first reading, this means that Rose and Miriam, the two most charismatic, forceful figures, dominate. Rose is a monster – “less a mother than some preening and jealous Shakespearean lover”; Miriam is “a Bolshevik of the five senses”. In the novel’s funniest, most dramatic scene, Rose catches teenage Miriam trying to have sex for the first time and responds with a tirade in which she puts first her own head into a lit gas oven, and then her daughter’s. The pair are well-matched; but where Rose bludgeons, Miriam charms. If Lenny, Tommy the folk singer, Cicero and Sergius pale by comparison, it’s because they’re walking around in someone else’s shadow. If Rose (according to cousin Lenny) is “a tundra wolf, a Darwin creature, surviving on treachery and scraps”, it’s because she has decided to be. In a flashback to her early days with ineffectual émigré Albert, who longs for his life in Germany, a hitherto cowed and lower-class Rose realises that marriage is “a highly dialectical situation”. She speaks up, never to be silent again.
Miriam is another, less idealised, incarnation of Rachel Ebdus, the mother who disappears in The Fortress of Solitude. In that novel, Rachel Ebdus tells her son Dylan – one of only three white children in his school in Gowanus – how to survive on the block: “be wilder than they are, wear flames in your hair, that’s my recommendation”. Dylan never quite succeeds, until he gets to the most expensive college in America and fakes it for those who’ve never met the real thing.
Transplanted from Brooklyn to Queens, Miriam is a confident, worldly-wise figure who streaks through the novel, but is as trapped by her time and circumstances as her mother. Men always give her a hearing, but “Her fiercest sincerities were translated by the male ego, on arrival, into daffy flirtation.” Later, she’s the go-to confidante for yippie girls with “the special ironic burden of the chauvinist hippie boyfriend”. But just as Rachel leaves her “bohemian demimonde, a hippie dream”, so does Miriam. The countercultural space they both inhabit is too easily co-opted by the people and forces they hate.
The continuous strand in Dissident Gardens is not family, but its kaleidoscopic treatment of American Communism. Rose’s expulsion comes just months before Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress; by 1957, the American Communist Party had only 5,000 members (down from an peak of 75,000 after the Second World War). Communism in Dissident Gardens is mainly “a prophecy of the Future” and Rose’s belief in the future ends in 1955. While she settles for a lifetime of furious, tyrannical disappointment, everyone else opts for some kind of displacement activity and political commitments move into bohemia or the academy. Miriam chooses hippiedom, Lenny crushes on Miriam, Cicero has a book published by Verso – and right at the end Sergius has sex in an airport bathroom with a girl from the Occupy camp, and comes out as “a fellow traveler”. It might seem like a weak ending – but it’s a satisfyingly ambiguous one; none of the characters has a much better claim to authenticity – or effectiveness – than any of the others. Even Miriam, the ultimate New Yorker, fluffs her appearance on a TV gameshow, stumbling on the questions about her hometown. Her folk-singer husband is mostly ridiculous: he was in a mildly successful harmony group with his two brothers until he meets Miriam and starts finding songs in headlines. But Tommy’s conversion – to Miriam mostly – is touching in its naiveté: “Nothing in The Pelican Anthology of Love Poetry had prepared him remotely.”
After eight novels and several non-fiction books, Jonathan Lethem now seems like the best chronicler of bohemia and its failures, the greatest of which, his work seems to say, is “gentrification”. In The Fortress of Solitude the adult Dylan, whose parents (like Lethem’s) were the first generation of artists who moved into Brooklyn, realises: “A gentrification was the scar left by a dream, Utopia the show which always closed on opening night.” In Dissident Gardens, Lethem has for the first time moved back into history, instead of relying on memory or the structures of genre fiction. His real termite move, here as elsewhere, is to look at present scars unflinchingly and to show that his work, if anyone doubted it, has been political all along.
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem is published by Jonathan Cape