Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dissident Gardens

I am not sure whether to refer to Jonathan Lethem's newest novel, Dissident Gardens, as a beautifully written book that is at times deeply flawed, or a deeply flawed book that is at times beautifully written. Let my ambivalence stand as judgment.

It puts me in mind of my own abortive attempts at novel writing, in which a first chapter spills forth, lyrical and inventive, and then second and subsequent chapters get bogged down in exposition and world-building. Except of course that Lethem, being an accomplished novelist rather than a crude beginner, starts at a much higher level than I do, and so his bogs are more tolerable. I have already excerpted many of the gems on Twitter, so this review will focus more on the bogs.

The Baffler has already published a critical review by Rhian Sasseen which I must acknowledge. Much of what I have to say negatively about the book has already been said well there. The critique of his attempt to shoehorn a political novel into the framework of familial, domestic realism (a form that nearly exhausts what passes for "realism" in the U.S. literary marketplace at the moment) is particularly apposite. In Lethem's hands, radicalism becomes a kind of familial curse. My standard critique of this applies: If politics were hereditary, I would be a Golden Dawn sympathizer. Both politics and families are more complicated than this novel can portray.

Yet Sasseen's critique falls into the trap of being the kind of radical-left writing that makes itself ridiculous by demanding impotently to the mainstream that the left be taken more seriously. The various moments of absurdity that appear in the novel--Rose Angrush & Albert Zimmer meeting due to a poorly coordinated intervention into a milquetoast Popular Front organization; Rose, the former union organizer, degenerating into a neighborhood watch captain and library board member; Tom & Miriam seeking Sandinistas and bumbling into the camp of a CIA-sponsored contra; their son, Sergius, whose sole contribution to Occupy is to Occupy Pussy--are absurdities that are familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few years in the radical left. Failure to acknowledge absurdity leads only to ever greater farces whose dimensions become tragic. As a case in point, consider the "sarin socialists" fresh from their jaunt to visit the great leader Bashar al-Assad.

If anything, one wishes that Lethem had had the knowledge and daring to probe further into the potential for absurdity, had done for the last fifty years of American radicalism what Carl Hiaasen has done for South Florida. For example, consider the fact that Trotskyists appear only as objects of distant imprecation by Rose. This may seem picayune, except for the fact that Dave Van Ronk--blues-folk revivalist, and early supporter of the "American Committee for the Fourth International"--makes a significant cameo in the development of Tom & Miriam's relationship. That fact alone puts these characters no more than two degrees of separation from the likes of Tim Wohlforth and Sy Landy, and likely fewer. For the reader with personal and historical knowledge, this bespeaks so much lost potential for both intense political argument and trenchant satire.

I am deliberately saying little about the character of Cicero Lookins, except to indicate that I have reason to believe that he may have been based on a dear friend of mine, and if so, the depiction borders on the slanderous.

There is also a book that could be written, by someone more patient and/or masochistic than I, on the state of Maine as a figure for utopian rustication in New York City culture, with data-points ranging from the electro-pop duo Matt & Kim, to NYT-scion cum cli-fi wunderkind Nathaniel Rich, to this book. The final chapter is written entirely in a tone I call "metropolitan sneer," a tone familiar to me whenever I encounter acquaintances from my time in NYC. If that's what people need to do to make piece with the fact that they're paying $3,000/month in rent, I won't begrudge them, but it is the identification of the American far-left with metropolitan centers like NYC and San Francisco, and the attendant association with know-nothing elitism, that is one of the many things deserving of satire.

Someone reading this could fairly infer that I hated the book. It would be more accurate to say that I resented the book for failing to live up to the early promise of the first chapter, and for giving me reasons to continue to enjoy it along the way, despite its manifold faults. I hope it inspires others to write better novels covering similar ground.

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