[Marxism] Review of Jonathan Lethem's "Dissident Gardens"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 4 14:44:29 MDT 2014

(I'll probably get around to reviewing this stupid novel but I am no hurry.)

NY Review April 24, 2014 Issue

Leftists in Jeopardy
Michael Greenberg

Dissident Gardens
by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 366 pp., $27.95

Jonathan Lethem is a writer of enormous energy. His mind appears to be 
constantly ticking—digressing, racing—in a kind of writer’s 
fibrillation. His restless, slightly pedantic style seems to have been 
forged by a drive to lasso the stampede of associations provoked by 
nearly every thought or occurrence in his fiction. He may be describing 
himself when he writes, in his most recent novel, Dissident Gardens, of 
the “trivial facts…blizzarding” in the brain of one of his characters. 
Lethem is rarely trivial, but the abundance of references and asides 
that run through his work may make you feel that they, not his 
characters, are the real subject.

And they may well be. Dissident Gardens opens with the line: “Quit 
fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party.” This sounds 
like a homage to the opening sentence of Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s 
Theater: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” Lethem, 
by both temperament and conviction, is a gleeful borrower and 
appropriator of whatever happens to find a foothold in his capaciously 
absorbent mind. He is a cultural omnivore.

Appropriation in this context wouldn’t be theft, much less plagiarism, 
which, in any event, Lethem has celebrated as “organically connected to 
creativity itself.” In a long essay published in Harper’s in 2007, 
called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Lethem argues that “the kernel, the 
soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and 
valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism.” Literature, to 
put it another way, is an unpredictable and endless meme gone wild.

The title of “The Ecstasy of Influence” itself, as Lethem explains it, 
is a “rebuking” play on Harold Bloom’s 1973 book The Anxiety of 
Influence. Rebuking, I gather, because in Bloom the “willful 
revisionism” of one writer of another, as Bloom put it, is done 
covertly. Lethem, by contrast, shouts his influences from the rooftops. 
In a coda to the essay, he lists “every line I stole, warped, and 
cobbled together as I ‘wrote.’” To drive home his point, he reveals that 
the play on Bloom’s title doesn’t come from his reading of Bloom, but 
from a phrase he overheard and “lifted” during a professor’s talk. And 
so goes the unstoppable mass of ideas, phrases, and notions, snatched 
from newspapers, lectures, books, movies, blogs, television, and rock 
music, and dropped into whatever creative concoction is currently at hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that Dissident Gardens is liberally sprinkled 
with echoes, borrowings, and homages, lifted from both high and pop 
culture. A partial list of these would include Don DeLillo, television 
game shows, Alfred Kazin, Philip Roth, the novelist Thomas Berger, 
Norman Mailer, Seymour Krim, Vivian Gornick—and surely there are dozens 
more that sailed past me. Lethem is adept at threading in his 
influences, and Dissident Gardens does not read like a pastiche. It 
suffers, however, from an exhaustive, and ultimately flattening, 
cultural knowingness—a penchant to refer to and comment on the social 
attitudes of the moment, a wish to show special knowledge, to be in the 

At the center of the novel is Rose Zimmer, a bristling, iron-willed, 
sexually liberated activist who came of age in the 1930s. In the opening 
scene, a group of Communist Party emissaries arrives at Rose’s house in 
Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. They have come to expel her from the Party 
that has been the organizing principle of her adult life. The sin Rose 
has committed is that of carrying on an affair with a black New York 
police lieutenant who also happens to be a Republican. “Bringing 
revolution to Negroes, fine. To have one particular black cop in her 
sheets, not so fine. Oh hypocrites!” thinks Rose. “They were troubled by 
her associations…[her] excess zeal in the cause of Negro equality.”

The year is 1955, the heart of the McCarthy era, and though neither Rose 
nor her inquisitors know it yet, during the next five years the 
Communists’ clout in American life would dwindle to almost nothing. The 
emissaries, wearing vests and jackets, have drearily arrayed “themselves 
on [Rose’s] chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some 
intellectual assignment.” Despite a lifetime of allegiance, Rose has 
nothing but contempt for “these ghastly shades of doctrine.”

I found myself wondering how one as independent-minded as Rose could 
have stayed with the Communist Party for so long. Eight years earlier, 
in 1947, in another “living-room trial,” the commissars ordered her 
husband, a German, to return to his country as a spy, rendering Rose a 
virtual widow, left to bring up their young daughter alone. And by 1955, 
Stalin’s atrocities could no longer be ignored even by the diehard 
faithful. One explanation is that for its most committed members the 
Party supplied everything: social life, political life, romantic life, 
employment, faith. To be excommunicated was to lose your identity, to 
become an instant pariah, to be alone. The late novelist William Herrick 
described the experience to me shortly before he died in 2004:

     I was suckled on Communism. I could recite the Party line like a 
catechism, and when the line changed I changed along with it. I was a 
believer, a fundamentalist. I hated doubt. The Party was my faith, my 
family, my tribe.*

When Herrick renounced the Party in the late 1930s, after being troubled 
by what he saw while fighting as a Communist volunteer in Spain, he had 
to “learn again how to live. It took years.”

Cast out of her tribe, all that Rose has left to focus her considerable 
energies on are her daughter Miriam and Cicero, the son of her policeman 
lover. Each will wage a life-and-death psychological battle with Rose, 
while struggling under the unshakable weight of her political 
fierceness. Miriam is the “repository for Rose’s whole self,” and Rose 
is the force Miriam must flee from. On the night of Rose’s 
excommunication, Miriam, age fifteen, slips into their house with a boy. 
Rose catches them in bed together, and gripped by the fear that she is 
about to lose everything, turns on the gas, threatens to kill herself, 
and then briefly pushes her daughter’s head in the oven.

Cicero, for his part, is Rose’s project, her labor of love, for whose 
intellectual improvement she enlists, Pygmalion-like, all her “defiant 
idealism.” The setup is promising, yet reading Dissident Gardens, I felt 
as if I was peering through a scrim, the characters obscured and 
faraway, the view obstructed. One reason for this is that Lethem’s 
primary concern is with the culture surrounding his subject, which he 
busily sets out to decode. This allows for several captivating insights, 
but they seem more the work of an essayist than of a novelist.

In one scene, Miriam tries her luck at being a contestant on a 
television game show. The year now is 1970. Miriam is thirty, living in 
an East Village commune, married to a folksinger, and mother to a young 
son. The scene is presented as a virtuoso set piece, tailor-made for 
Lethem, who seems to take pleasure in creating his own, slightly 
satirical version of Jeopardy. Over a span of more than twenty pages, he 
regales us with a blow-by-blow account of the show, replete with quiz 
categories such as “Goats in Fact and Fable,” “Cities in Crisis,” and 
“The Works of Charles Dickens.”

The scene begins with the covert recognition between a production 
assistant at the studio and Miriam that they are fellow freaks working 
in the normal world. “Finding the sweet young head waiting here to meet 
her is all of a piece with Miriam’s New York in the new decade. As 
though she’s invoked him, smoked him into being.” The scene is teeming 
with factoids, laced with Miriam’s stoned reflections. A typical passage 
is Lethem’s description of the game show host with the 
made-for-television name of Art James:

     Art James is sheerly a phenomenon of time travel, a sealed voyager 
from the indefinite moment in the 1950s when anyone Miriam’s age had 
been first introduced by television to a certain dapper, snappily 
enunciating, and unspecifiably north-Midwestern version of United States 
masculinity, that of “the host.” Host of nearly anything, it didn’t 
matter. The type is characterized above all by its successful 
sublimation of the disarranging trauma of the generation of World War 
Two veterans from which the breed produced itself.

Smart, savvy, the passage nonetheless reads like something from the 
pages of a journal of cultural criticism. For all its sparkling moments, 
the whole performance never takes you further than its own surface; the 
novel would be neither more nor less without it. Lethem’s impulse to 
display his knowingness, his pop “vernacular” expertise, as he calls it, 
his belief that “we’re surrounded by signs [and] our imperative is to 
ignore none of them,” engenders a narrative noise that drowns out the 
novel’s subtler chords. His characters become the sum total of their 
cultural associations, creatures of the zeitgeist, a form of determinism 
that, as determinism does, leaves little or no room for spontaneity and 
nuance. We know them by their era, their affiliations, the music they 
listen to, and the products they boycott or acquire.

Even Rose, intractable Red warrior of the 1930s and 1940s, becomes 
obsessed in old age with Archie Bunker, the patriotic television 
proletarian of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family. Rose “got the gag 
immediately,” writes Lethem, and so do we. It’s a dark joke, to be sure, 
but one that quickly wears thin as Rose finds herself “plunging ever 
deeper into the maze of [Archie Bunker’s] charismatic stupidity.”

Miriam can name everyone in the group photograph on the album cover of 
the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I suspect that 
Lethem may be able to do so too. Like her creator, she has an insider’s 
familiarity with the boroughs of New York—“the subway lines,…its pigeon 
population…the dance of the monkeys and hippos on the Central Park Zoo 
clock…her ease with negroes…her allusions to veiled knowledge.” Her list 
of urban credentials is compendious, but unlike in his earlier novel 
Fortress of Solitude, they never feel ingrained.

As clever teenagers in the mid-1950s, Miriam and her friends 
halfheartedly attempt to crash a party at Norman Mailer’s house in 
Brooklyn Heights because they think it’s where the hip people will be. 
Later, she marries an Irish folksinger who comprises one third of a 
minstrel trio of brothers reminiscent of the Clancy Brothers, who 
enjoyed, in the 1950s and 1960s, a well-earned reputation for belting 
out sea shanties and highland ballads in Greenwich Village cafés and 
bars. Thus we get Lethem’s treatment of the folk scene of those years, 
sometimes perceptive, sometimes generic, but almost always focused on 
the cresting social moment—what’s coming, what’s passé—as if inner life 
were exclusively determined by the current cultural vibe.

Much of Lethem’s depiction of the folk scene is borrowed from Dave van 
Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, and 
other testimonials of the time. The bars and basket houses (where 
musicians played for donations dropped in a basket that was passed 
around), Lethem tells us, were “a bedlam of fraudulence,” where 
“performers sold one another on ‘traditional’ ethnic folk songs cribbed 
from Mitch Miller…[and] singers of hobo chants and Wobblie anthems 
turned out to be bluebloods, born of Ivy League families.” This was 
sometimes the case, but the folk revival was more complicated than that, 
fueled in no small part by a wish to plug into—to borrow—the visceral 
power of music that had been passed around for so long it seemed 
unwritten by a single hand.

Authenticity is especially important to Miriam’s husband, Tom Gogan, who 
breaks with his brothers to become a solo act. Gogan is in a creative 
crisis, and Lethem’s portrayal of him is one of the novel’s finer 
strokes. He hangs around the Village, earnestly stalking the “chimeras 
of authenticity in the counterfeit world.” Under Miriam’s tutelage, he 
ditches his topical antisegregation songs and takes to composing ballads 
about Bowery derelicts whom he interviews in their flophouse rooms. 
Gogan calls it “the living blues.” Unfortunately, the album he records 
arrives too late, made instantly obsolete by Bob Dylan’s 
self-mythologizing, Beat-inflected harangues. Folk styles have moved on; 
mystical autobiography has replaced the “sob-sister hand-wringing” that 
Gogan is accused of purveying.

Lethem’s “review” of the album by a fictitious writer from The East 
Village Other, an alternative magazine of the 1960s, is pitch-perfect. 
Bowery of the Forgotten, as Tom Gogan’s album is called, is “a nauseous 
amalgam of keening country-blues ingratiation and arch poetry, larded 
through with platitudinous pity towards its subject matter.”

Soon, Dylan’s top-forty hit “Like a Rolling Stone” is being broadcast 
everywhere, a “splenetic fusillade pouring from the radio,” drilling a 
hole through the brain of Gogan and countless other also-ran folkies. By 
1965, the more pious protest singers have been eclipsed for good.

Miriam and Tom Gogan subscribe to a fuzzier, more amorphous politics 
than that of Rose, a kind of haphazard, all-purpose, all-issue 
progressivism of the sort that has become, over the decades, the 
American left’s norm. With a hint of contempt, Rose sees it as “unmoored 
in theory or party—a cloud politics.” It is on the wisp of this cloud 
that, in the 1980s, Miriam and Tom leave their young son with friends 
and light out for Nicaragua to support the Sandinistas. The couple 
wanders through the Nicaraguan countryside, clueless and pathetically 
vulnerable. It’s a significant event in this multigenerational saga, but 
it unfolds in a dull haze. This of course is intentional—Tom and Miriam 
have devolved into a stoner’s activism, a politics with no name. But 
what can’t be hidden is how underimagined the scene is, marked by little 
more than Miriam’s longing for a cigarette and—in a flight to research 
by Lethem—a list of Nicaragua’s forest ferns.

Lethem resorts to research to paper over the gaps at other critical 
moments in Dissident Gardens. Rose’s policeman lover, Douglas Lookins, a 
pivotal figure in the novel, is more of a historical circumstance than a 
plausible human being. Lethem obviously has no imaginative access to 
Douglas, and he takes cover behind what reads like a blandly informative 
article about the trials of an honest, black New York City cop in the 1950s.

Lethem’s real interest is in Douglas’s son, Cicero, who, according to 
Lethem’s conception of him, must exist with minimal psychological 
interference from his parents. And so, he strenuously goes about the 
business of purging Douglas from the novel, informing us that after 
seventeen years of living with him, his preternaturally brilliant only 
child has formulated not a single piercing insight into his father. 
About his mother Cicero is equally blank. “Their home was an institution 
devised not to understand Douglas Lookins.”

But with his parents out of the way, Cicero emerges as the most 
affecting character in the novel, far more original than Rose herself, 
who, though cast as the story’s galvanizing force, never comes into 
sharp enough focus to convincingly carry off the part. When Cicero was a 
boy, under Rose’s wing, she loved him in a way she “never loved…before 
or after.” He was her last great cause. And for Cicero, even as an 
adult, Rose remains “the single most penetrating intelligence he’d ever 
known.” To be the object of Rose’s affection comes with a price. Alone, 
enraged, Cicero is in constant, silent dialogue with her. She is the 
invisible, psychic companion whom he is unable “to offload…from his brain.”

Obese, gay, with dreadlocks that are “his brain voice made visible, a 
silent bellow,” Cicero secures a job as a professor of semiotics at a 
private college in Maine. The class he teaches is called “Disgust and 
Proximity,” and it’s as much a means for self-investigation as 
instruction. Cicero’s task, as he sees it, is “to play neutron bomb” 
with his students: “destroy them but also leave them standing.” He 
orders them to “say something here you know about your mother but have 
never said aloud.” The students fall silent. Some walk out of the class. 
Cicero himself is the only one to take up the challenge:

     My mother is almost entirely impossible to think about…. What I did 
apart from decline to give [her] life as a person any kind of real 
consideration was mostly to wish she’d go away. To wish she’d die. I 
wanted her to make it more convenient for my father, so he could go off 
with a white lady from the neighborhood, whom my daddy was fucking.

Dissident Gardens is a sad novel—Rose and her descendants do not fare 
well—yet I wish its cumulative effect had been sadder. The story of the 
radical left in America is mostly one of defeat, a series of “shrunken 
battlefronts,” as even Rose has no choice but to concede. The subject is 
huge, and Lethem’s attempt to take it on might have succeeded had he 
sheltered his characters a little from the blizzard of his cultural 
discursions. In this novel he is too knowing, too certain, too informed. 
He has wrapped his characters in a predetermined embrace, and I found 
myself longing to be less talked-to, less instructed—and more in the dark.

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