[Marxism] Good take-down of Lethem's lame novel about CP'ers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 13 07:18:03 MST 2014

(No, I haven't read Lethem's novel but am convinced that it will be a 
steaming pile of dung. Here was my first impression: 

London Review of Books Vol. 36 No. 4 · 20 February 2014

I don’t want your revolution
Marco Roth

     Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
     Cape, 366 pp, £18.99, January, ISBN 978 0 224 09395 8

The early 21st century brought a new type of American novel. Its 
best-known practitioners – all men of the same generation, born in the 
mid to late 1960s – are Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz and Jonathan Lethem. 
The books they wrote were interested in popular culture or 
counterculture as much as in the thoughts and passions of characters. 
Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) chronicled the 
rise of superhero comics in postwar America. Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous 
Life of Oscar Wao (2007) described its hero’s introduction to science 
fiction, hinting that sci-fi might offer a solution to the perennial 
immigrant dilemma of how to become a normal American without losing your 
identity. Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) told the story of an 
inter-racial friendship between two Brooklyn boys through the rise of 
graffiti, punk rock, funk, hip-hop and comic books.

The reception of these novels became vaguely politicised, and involved 
debates about what happens when literary fiction, a nonsense category, 
expands to absorb categories that were once considered its opposite. In 
the lazy lexicon of traditional publishing, ‘genre fiction’ – detective 
novels, fantasy, science fiction, romance – meant anything that was 
unserious and unliterary. ‘The highbrow and the lowbrow, once kept 
chastely separate, are now hooking up,’ was the sort of thing people 
wrote about these novels, making them sound risqué. In this case, it was 
Lev Grossman, the chief book critic for Time, still the voice of 
American mainstream taste – and himself the author of a novel about Star 
Trek fans. In a 2006 interview Lethem spoke of ‘the idea – which is 
ultimately a political idea – that a given writer, perhaps me, could in 
some objective way alter or reorganise the boundaries between genres.’ 
Why this was a political idea, rather than a traditionally cultural one, 
wasn’t spelled out. It was about respect, or a ‘recognition’ of ordinary 
people’s tastes: soap operas and sci-fi were the new Proust; planet 
Krypton was as meaningful a utopia as Combray. More to the point, a 
taste for Proust, in the age of the mass market, was really a suppressed 
preference for soap operas and superheroes – which is where, for most of 
us, it all began.

Lethem and the others won their battle for recognition from the literary 
establishment with relative ease. A falsely exclusive, content-based 
concept of what counts as literary has been replaced by a more 
inclusive, still content-based and no less false concept of what counts 
as literary. Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize, and Lethem and Díaz both won 
MacArthur genius fellowships; they now hold professorships at Pomona and 
MIT respectively. The journey from dissident outsider to respected 
novelist turned out to be much shorter, and the way easier, than any of 
them could have dreamed.

In fact, the fate of the pop-culture-filled novel turned out not to be 
so different from that of other arts during the same period: Quentin 
Tarantino was making arty B-movies, or B art-movies, at the same time 
that Lethem was writing Amnesia Moon, a homage to Philip K. Dick, and 
Gun, with Occasional Music, a homage to Chandler and Hammett; graffiti 
and other outsider art started appearing in museums and auction houses; 
and DJ-worship replaced the mid-century cult of the conductor. It’s 
possible, in other words, to read this period, from the mid-1990s to the 
end of the first decade of the new millennium, as one in which 
pre-existing popular or mass culture put in a claim to be considered the 
fundamental material out of which all art was – or should be – formed. 
To his credit, Lethem has since recognised that he was pushing against 
an open door: ‘I was a tormented snob dressed in PopCult garb because it 
made the nearest to hand defence of what I loved,’ he writes in the 
essay ‘Against Pop Culture’, ‘but it wasn’t my defence, and vast 
continents of category fiction and television didn’t stir me at all … In 
this jumbled zone, the line “pop culture” drew wasn’t worth the time 
spent erasing it.’

In Dissident Gardens, his ninth novel, he strives to put more distance 
between himself and his earlier woolly cultural politics: this time, his 
characters are all animated by explicitly political ideas and define 
themselves by their political loyalties. On the surface, the book is 
structured as a history of American radical leftism through the second 
half of the 20th century: communism, pacifism, anti-racism, radical 
feminism, all the way up to the recent Occupy movement. It is also, as 
is Lethem’s way, a knowing homage to the old European ‘decline of a 
family’ novel. It tells the story of a single family, the Angrush-Zimmer 
clan, down the generations, presenting itself as a sprightlier 
Buddenbrooks. At one point a young member of the family writes to her 
father, back in East Germany, to say she’s read the copy of Mann’s novel 
that he gave her: ‘all those dishes and pianos and all that chocolate’ 
remind her to tell him that she still has ‘that five-ton marble ashtray 
… the one from your father’s bank … There’s a joint burning in it now 
pretty much around the clock.’ This image – the American joint in the 
old European ashtray – sums up Lethem’s attitude to his literary and 
cultural antecedents: at once dependent and cavalier. The use of the 
family heirloom is what makes the joint a meaningful, rebellious 
gesture: without the ashtray of history, a joint is just a joint. Much 
like the rebellious daughter he’s created, Lethem wants everyone to 
understand that ritual desecration is his way of keeping faith with 
older forms.

The novel opens in 1955, with the expulsion of the Angrush matriarch, 
Rose, from her local Communist Party cell in the borough of Queens in 
New York. Rose’s sin is that she’s having an affair with a black cop. 
The all white, mostly Jewish communists are angry not because Rose is 
sleeping with a married black man but because she’s sleeping with a cop: 
that’s what we’re told, at least. The scene is presented indirectly from 
Rose’s point of view, but from a curious distance. ‘Communism was larger 
than the party and therefore beyond the party’s immolations, its 
self-stabbings,’ she thinks. She knows what’s going to happen, so we 
don’t get to hear the actual proceedings of the show trial that follows: 
there is none of the rhetoric, or the dialogue. Rose dismisses it all as 
‘droning insinuation’, and walks out on the Commies camped out in her 
kitchen. The CPUSA is seen as discredited and not worth listening to, 
which is pretty much what we might think now, but can’t reflect how 
people in the party felt about it at the time.

Nothing in the novel’s handling of its Reds comes close to the moment in 
Philip Roth’s treatment of the same period in I Married a Communist, 
when the young Nathan Zuckerman travels to the steel mill towns east of 
Chicago, ‘an America that I was not a native of and never would be and 
that I possessed as an American nonetheless’, and sees ‘block after 
block of soot-covered bungalows’. He takes in the atmosphere of the 
place, ‘its crudity, its austerity, the obdurate world of people who 
were always strapped, in debt, paying things off’, and meets a communist 
organiser who treats him as someone who has no choice but to be involved 
on the right side: ‘There was a tautened to-the-point quality to what he 
said, the thinking firmly established, the words themselves seemingly 
shot through with will … The tang of what I thought of as “the real” 
permeated his talk … though also the speech of someone in whom nothing 
ever laughed.’ Zuckerman runs away from this, because he doesn’t want to 
sacrifice laughter, and because he wants to be a famous writer, not an 
organiser, but the choice is at least presented in a way that honours 
the claims of the other side and recognises that it had a style, however 

In Dissident Gardens Rose works in a pickle factory. Such places did 
once exist in Queens – in an age before their reinvention as artisanal 
start-ups in hipster Brooklyn – but neither the factory nor the working 
conditions are evoked in any detail, other than a few remarks about 
brine-soaked hands and clothes in some of Rose’s more self-pitying 
monologues. Those hoping to find patient and detailed descriptions of 
Queens like those that marked Lethem’s writing about his native Brooklyn 
in The Fortress of Solitude, where it seemed that every sidewalk crack 
of Boerum Hill received its due attention, will be disappointed. And the 
detail is needed here, or it would be, if the novel really was about the 
politics of labour. But it isn’t: Lethem presents Rose as an 
all-American anarchist from the Emma Goldman faction – if I can’t screw 
black policemen, I don’t want your revolution. This might even be 
persuasive if the next scene didn’t show us a rather different Rose who, 
when she comes across her daughter, Miriam, in flagrante turns into a 
Jewish mother from an Abraham Cahan novel, as drawn by R. Crumb: ‘Rose 
tore at the sash of her robe, tore it open, flung it to the floor at her 
feet. Then clawed again, at the filmy nightdress beneath, rending the 
cloth where it held her vast, soft, pale-yellow, mole-strewn breasts so 
they tumbled out, absurd offering, absurd accusation.’ This is only a 
prelude to the high camp melodrama of Rose putting not only her own head 
in the oven but her daughter’s as well.

The anguishes of the Angrush-Zimmer clan are, in Lethem’s telling, 
always mediated by some piece of popular culture. Dissident Gardens is a 
kitsch reliquary of the totems of America’s East Coast left: Carl 
Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln; Greenwich Village cafés of 
the 1950s and 1960s, full of the apostles and understudies of Woody 
Guthrie and Dave Von Ronk; quiz shows and sit-coms; the recently extinct 
chess clubs of MacDougal and Thompson Streets; the New York Mets. At its 
best, the collagist method captures historical moods with a powerful 
compactness: a late sequence manages to explain the transformation of 
the Angrushes’ neighbourhood in Queens from left-wing working class to 
Reagan-voting working class by way of a fantasised episode of All in the 
Family – a 1970s sit-com famous for the casual racism, misogyny, 
anti-Semitism, maudlin traditionalism and proud ignorance of its lead 
character. At other moments, the effort to work in a riff seems far 
greater than the payoff: an entire chapter is devoted to an Angrush 
cousin’s efforts to persuade the owner of the newly formed Mets to 
change the team’s name to the Proletarians (‘Pros’ for short), ‘the 
baseball organisation of, by, and for the working man’, and adopt a 
guitar protest anthem as a team song. The wistful humour of this 
unlikely plan only works if you know the team’s actual inane and cheery 
song: ‘Meet the Mets/Meet the Mets/Head to the park and greet the Mets.’

Despite this catalogue of appropriated artefacts and cultural modes, 
Lethem’s New York novels in fact have always depended on a master genre: 
Bildung, the story of individuation. His characters are usually misfits 
who adapt the codes of particular pop-culture idioms to make sense of 
their own quests. The narrator of Motherless Brooklyn is an orphan with 
Tourette’s who makes use of hardboiled detective novels to help him 
solve the murder of his surrogate father. Dylan, the narrator of The 
Fortress of Solitude, Lethem’s most autobiographical and most 
accomplished novel, is the only white kid on his Brooklyn block, 
consumed first by his own vulnerability and later by his guilt at having 
failed to keep his only friend out of prison. Dissident Gardens is 
populated by a gallery of similar outcasts: Cicero Lookins, an obese, 
gay, black professor of cultural studies at a small liberal arts college 
in Maine; Sergius Gogan, the orphaned son of Miriam Zimmer Angrush and a 
failed protest singer, who works as a music teacher at a Quaker boarding 
school; and Miriam’s cousin Lenny, short for Lenin not Leonard, an obese 
(again) former chess prodigy, numismatist and hustler, abandoned by his 
parents when they give up on the Communist Party and move to Israel. 
These characters aren’t ‘losers’, a term that implies people who 
acknowledge the rules of the social game but play it badly: they don’t 
just sit at home watching late-night TV. Nor are they members of a 
systematically oppressed social class. They are, rather, the sensitive 
undersnobs Lethem has such sympathy for: gifted but not tremendously so, 
experts in minor fields like chess, coin collecting, presidential 
trivia, folk music etc, surviving in a hostile American wilderness.

For them, politics is a background against which they repeatedly perform 
scenes of intergenerational conflict and act out classic family 
resentments: the feckless folk singer Tommy Gogan takes to protest songs 
in order to escape his older brothers’ faux-Irish tribute band. Miriam’s 
battles with Rose are interspersed with a modern-day plot that takes 
Sergius on a nostalgia-tinted journey in search of his roots, during 
which he meets Cicero, who mourns the old neighbourhood and begins a 
seminar by saying to his students: ‘Let’s talk about your mothers, 
fuckers.’ Politics, for Lethem, appears to perform much the same 
function as popular culture – it’s a medium of self-fashioning – and 
political choices are portrayed as hardly different from cultural ones. 
The American left is merely the environment his characters happen to 
know, much as it was for Lethem. ‘The first third of my life,’ he said 
to a Paris Review interviewer in 2003, ‘was spent at political 
demonstrations, shouting my lungs hoarse. It was as much a part of my 
existence as having a holiday off from school. Those were my holidays. 
That’s how I visited different cities, that’s how I met adults beside my 
parents.’ No character in Dissident Gardens voices a conservative 
position, and so the book gives no sense of the danger of other kinds of 
radicalism; there is no actual political argument being had. When Miriam 
and her husband venture to Nicaragua in the throes of the Sandinista 
revolution, they fall foul of psychopathic banditti rather than any 
evangelical anti-communists. Later, Sergius is briefly mistaken for a 
terrorist by airport security because of a sexual liaison with a cute 
Occupy chick in a toilet. In Lethem’s world, a left-wing radical is just 
a liberal who has been misunderstood by reality.

More information about the Marxism mailing list