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Leftists in Jeopardy

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 know.

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.

  1. *

    For more on Herrick’s experience with the Communist Party, see his political memoir Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). 

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