Jonathan Lethem's new novel Dissident Gardens is a portrait of the city's Leftist generation
A lot of people claim New York, but few have earned the claim and write the city as well as Jonathan Lethem. He’s in a camp with E.B. White, Pete Hamill, Colson Whitehead and Joan Didion, who, like Lethem, has engaged in a longtime affair with California. He now teaches at Pomona College, living the idyllic suburban professor’s life he jokes is like the Witness Protection Program. But if, as Lethem once wrote, “Remembering Brooklyn is a full-time job,” lamenting its change is not. With the dual gift of being both a native New Yorker and having spent time away, Lethem has the perspective that only distance can give, and prefers to write New York from exile, as he says, “to be out of the city and kind of dream my way back to it in a reconstructive process, like I’m building a little mental diorama and walking through it.”
"It’s absolutely true that if you want to feel like an intense, sarcastic New Yorker, if you want to feel like Crazy Eddie or Marty Markowitz, go to California, because anybody from here seems that way by contrast."
Though Lethem shares what he calls “live nerves” about New York’s altered landscape, he doesn’t walk around like so many lifelong New Yorkers, wondering who are all these people and why did they move here and why is there a 7-Eleven on the same block as Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop in the middle of Manhattan? Even Lethem’s artist father, to whom his latest novel, Dissident Gardens, is dedicated, decamped to Maine more than 20 years ago. As for that old New Yorker’s problem of being told to “take it easy” on the West Coast, Lethem says, “it’s absolutely true that if you want to feel like an intense, sarcastic New Yorker, if you want to feel like Crazy Eddie or Marty Markowitz, go to California, because anybody from here seems that way by contrast.”
Dissident Gardens is a hefty work that spans three generations of a family loosely based on Lethem’s own. Here is Rose Zimmer, “the voice that crossed through every room and situation, the voice that never stilled”—a stymied Communist activist swimming in a “lava of disappointment,” who, like Lethem’s grandmother, works in a pickle factory. Here is Miriam, Rose’s fiery daughter who wears her city-kid identity like a badge, seduces lovers and friends with her “fluency of the city’s mad systems,” then becomes another absent mother character, reflecting the early loss of Lethem’s own. Miriam schools Cicero, the son of Rose’s lover, in the New York downtown cool of the early ’70s, from the Fugs and McSorley’s to Dave’s egg creams and the fortune-telling chicken in Chinatown.
Then there’s Sergius, Miriam’s son with her musician husband, who bears more than a little resemblance to Lethem with his “birthright: full Hippie, and half Secular Jewish”—and his act of leaving “the arena,” the wild chaos of the East Village and his urban commune home. Young Sergius identifies deeply with Ferdinand the Bull in his search for “safe pasture,” a quiet space, like a writer. Rose and Miriam embody the longing and disappointment of the Left, their ideals and aspirations constantly challenged, then shattered, their self-righteousness a barrier to listening. The characters in Dissident Gardens are all abandoned and in turn abandon others; the youngest generation—Cicero and Sergius—left to piece their origins back together, much like the author. Lethem is not sure his grandmother was ever in a Communist cell, but says, “she marched against Hitler in Manhattan in 1938, got her picture in Life magazine. Whereas for a memoirist or a historian this would be a disaster, for a novelist, the dark matter, the parts you don’t know are as nourishing to your project as the parts you do know.”
Lethem became known not only as a very New York writer, but one who explored male friendships and masculinity, though he points out that up until Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, he had largely written female protagonists. Even as the mother in Fortress leaves her family and sends postcards from afar as “Running Crab,” her absence, says Lethem, “is a presence of enormous mystery and power and yearning, and so I sometimes write toward it in a very direct way, and that’s what I’ve done again in Dissident Gardens with the mother and grandmother.” With Rose and Miriam, Lethem has created two very present, incredibly strong, albeit deeply damaged female leads.
Lethem and I meet for an hour during the first leg of his book tour on Sullivan Street in Manhattan, not far from the part of Greenwich Village where Miriam spent much of her youth and met her husband when he performed somewhere like Café Wha. I don’t get a chance to ask him about music—always a presence in his work—instead we delve headlong into politics. Since it is early September when we meet, and Dissident Gardens is a deeply political novel, I ask him a blatantly leading question about what Rose and Miriam might have made of the September 11th attacks and subsequent fallout—the warmongering and commodification of the tragedy, the experience of personal and local loss being turned into a “Never Forget” T-shirt, the gross exaggeration of an eye for an eye.
“To me,” Lethem says, “it’s a deeply political nightmare, and the ultimate symbol of it was when they took metal from the slag heap and they literally forged the ore from the towers into the hull of a gunship, and they sailed it into New York Harbor, as if to say, ‘We have turned your grief into a super-powered killing object, aren’t you happy now?’ You couldn’t write a fiction as grotesque.”
"'We have turned your grief into a super-powered killing object, aren’t you happy now?’ You couldn’t write a fiction as grotesque."
As for his own political action, having grown up in a Brooklyn commune, Lethem compares himself to one of his characters. “I walk around kind of like Cicero in some ways, sometimes flattering myself the way he does that he has a coherent, systematic and obnoxiously complete and condescending political take that makes sense. But like him, the moment I try to embody that in any speech or behavior, it usually is exposed as actually just a really pretentious version of political paralysis.” Still, he has occasionally stood behind a cause. “I’ll throw myself awkwardly in opposition to Atlantic Yards being built or a library being torn down,” he says.
“Boroughphobia,” the first section of Dissident Gardens, includes a passage in which teenage Miriam leads her friends on a charge across the Brooklyn Bridge to find and crash Norman Mailer’s party in Brooklyn Heights. Miriam immediately recognizes boroughphobia, specifically “fear of Brooklyn,” amongst her compatriots (what she has just realized is “her cell,” her own group to lead, like her mother) as they near “the immigrant shores” on the other side of the bridge. The scene is funny on its own, but even more so to imagine a group of college kids having fear-of-Brooklyn now that half of NYU lives in Bushwick.
When Lethem tells me he no longer feels he can claim New York, I fear I will be left to mutter alongside the other New Yorkers who spit on every bank on the Upper West side, waiting for H&H to come back and make real bagels. In Dissident Gardens, Lethem writes, “without photographic evidence the moment misted into legend.” Without chroniclers like Lethem, we would have nothing but our collective memory and muttering.