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 A falsely exclusive, content-based concept of what counts as literary has been replaced by a more inclusive, still content-based and no less false concept of what counts as literary.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 grim.
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.