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,…

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