Salvage Operations: In Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

A conversation about politics as culture with Dissident Gardens author Jonathan Lethem.

In his nearly 20 books so far, and in his not-quite 50 years, Jonathan Lethem has joined the small company of contemporary writers such as Geoff Dyer and Nicholson Baker, whose nonfiction and fiction form a continuum of thinking, sometimes queasily, about their cultural enthusiasms. Lethem’s early novels took science fiction and the detective noir to the brink of surrealism under the gravitational pull of Philip K. Dick; his major recent works have paid tribute and trouble to various scenes and eras of New York City and his own history there (The Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City). Meanwhile in his essays and monographs he has considered all of the above as well as comic books, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, John Carpenter’s They Live and the artful inevitability of plagiarism.

Now, while filling the late David Foster Wallace’s former post as a Pomona College creative-writing professor in Claremont, Calif., where he lives with his family, Lethem has returned to New York in his imagination with his new novel, Dissident Gardens. This time, the main action is not in Brooklyn or Manhattan but Queens, and he is mining not so much his personal history as the legacy of several waves of his family, most vivid among them his Communist (or fellow-traveler) maternal grandmother and his beatnik-then-commune-dwelling hippie-activist mother. It’s a dynasty of red-diaper babies and counterculture kids.

So now what occupies centre stage is not so much popular culture as it is the Popular Front; political activism rather than artistic affinity. Or at least so it seems from our first glimpse of Rose, the Jewish-émigré subversive powerhouse whom we first meet when she’s turfed from the Party in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, for “fucking black cops.”

The ensuing multigenerational montage sweeps in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene, 1980s pro-Sandinista radical chic, baseball and chess, gay sexuality in the pre-AIDS era, racial crossing, contemporary academic “affect” theory, Quakerism, a hallucinated Archie Bunker (it’s Queens, after all), Occupy Wall Street and more. But above all it is about personalities who are hopelessly yoked to a broken family romance that just happens to be inseparable from the broken romance of the American Left, toward which the book displays both passionate attachment and caustic frustration.

I sat down with Jonathan Lethem in Hazlitt’s Toronto offices for a wide-ranging exchange about the new book and its fraught juxtapositions of the cultural, personal and political. You can hear portions of it first-hand on the next edition of Hazlitt’s The Arcade podcast, but here is an edited version of the spangled, rambling whole.


Carl Wilson: One of the things I found intriguing in the book that I don’t get enough of is about the real Sunnyside Gardens—for awhile, not knowing Queens very well, I thought it might be kind of a composite, but I gather it was an actual, New Deal-era planned community?

Jonathan Lethem: Exactly. It had the endorsement of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lewis Mumford, and in some ways it was a very typically American utopian urban-planning project, but one with a general pinkish hue. And then it immediately became a containment area for something much more pink than that: A lot of real revolutionaries decided this was a simpatico place to live, and it became—notoriously, for people who regarded American Communists as notorious—a kind of hotbed.

And that also meant that there were a lot of people who moved there in sympathy, but then fell out over various factionalisms or paranoid retrenchments, and so were stuck sharing backyards with people they were not on a speaking basis with. And this of course was kind of an irresistible urban-planning microcosm of the story I wanted to tell. It also happened to glance off the family histories that I was interested in, because my grandmother and my mother lived there very briefly. And then they moved away—unlike the characters in the book, my own family didn’t stay there, so what it became was a kind of family legend that I’d hear about, and it took on this aura for me.

You describe how it was laid out with these shared yards and gardens and public laneways running between them, and then as the factionalisms and paranoia took over, people started fencing them off and taking portions of yards for their own. So the politics and psychology become inscribed into the physical place.

Yes, what an incredible little allegory of the death of the commons. And yet this happens to me in my writing about my urban subjects over and over again: It happens with Brooklyn, where people sort of see me as the great (laughs) town crier of gentrification, and they say to me, “Oh god, New York’s so strange, it’s all changed, it’s all gone.” I end up doubling back in a way and saying, “Well, yes, the changes are overwhelming and disorienting, but when I walk around Brooklyn I also see the past. There’s a kind of persistence to certain kinds of social meaning, on the streets and in the way the buildings are arranged and the way people live in the neighbourhoods, and that’s still present too.”

I think it’s equally the case that there’s something about Sunnyside Gardens that still is especially communitarian – even if people don’t know why they feel that way about living there or what the legacies mean or how they’ve been transformed. The past doesn’t dislodge that easily. It still shapes a lot of our present meaning.

At first the title Dissident Gardens struck me as just a tongue-in-cheek nickname for the area, but as I read through it, the title started opening up—with “gardens” as a verb as well, and dissidence as a domestic occupation. And then the possible triviality of it—that gardening is also a hobby on some level.

I like thinking of the way in which this allegorical neighbourhood could translate into much larger frameworks. All those meanings you found appeal to me a lot, so I’ll definitely claim to have put them in. (laughs) At the same time, I wasn’t setting out to write historiography; I wanted to write a book about these characters, and I had to learn a lot in the process just to build their reality, for them to inhabit. And I also had to throw out a lot of what I learned—novels are quite intolerant of information; you actually can’t stick too much in or you’ve started to do something else.

But if I learned one big thing, I felt it was that it wasn’t just my own desire to see my legacy as a left, protester, activist, dissident American—and I do have a legacy, which I attend to personally very inadequately, but I grew up in this atmosphere, and it did proceed through my grandmother and my mother—that this legacy was really deeply typical of American life. It wasn’t antithetical.

And that sounds so weird when you’re talking about something as specific as the American Communist movement, which was openly dedicated to the overthrow of the system. But actually, in good and bad ways, and in ways that cut completely across right and left spectrums, to set up a kind of dissident garden in this new land was the American story. The American Communists were in that way exemplifying what it was to come to this place, to try to live in a world that was not the one they were handed, that was not visible or tangible but that they were trying to will into existence. And you can see this in the largest sense as the story of the frontier and the story of all kinds of crazy social movements and movements that arose in reaction to them. You can see it in religious terms, things like the Mormons and the crazy utopianisms on the California coast.

You could pull it right up to the present and talk about the right-wing utopian dreamers trying to tear down the system right now. They’ve got a dissident garden of their own that they’re trying to cultivate and occupy and make others believe can grow. It’s really not so different in a strange way. So yeah, all of that stuff got in there.

There’s the line that gets brought up in the novel as so much of a cliché of Party circles that it’s considered embarrassing to use it—the idea that “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.” So the Party itself was conscious of that.

They were simply part of a revolutionary culture and they were the ones who were tending to that revolutionary zeal within it. And the claim was absurd and beautiful and did become a cliché, I didn’t make it up—I think it was eventually the cause of a lot of eye-rolling. But in the end it was something I came to believe! (laughs) That, whatever its particular hapless destiny, it was 20th-century Americanism.

A lot of your work is about culture and about how our cultural fixations take over us and bend our lives in different directions. And this book, kind of newly, is about politics. But it’s about politics as culture, politics as a form of culture. There’s a discomfort that creeps in around that, because politics is inevitably culture but in some ways it’s not supposed to be, it’s meant to—

It’s meant to overarch, it’s meant to extend beyond it. But absolutely, the constant seductive undertow of cultural identity subsuming political definitions, I think, reaches through the book, into various moments for various characters. I think that’s really an alert reading … and yet I’m writing from that position rather helplessly. Because I think, coming of age, I experienced my family’s political life as a cultural situation, and I have never necessarily been able to completely think my way outside of that. So I’m also expressing my helpless position inside that experience, right?

But I would also take this to a matter that’s almost more individually human. Or existentially human. That a theme, if you look at my work cumulatively, a theme I’m fascinated by is the way culture is the operation by which we define a self per se—forget a political self, it’s just how we self-construct. And that’s certainly in The Fortress of Solitude: it’s a deep operation, it’s a salvage operation for many of the characters, to find the cultural equipment that can make a self just in time or just barely in time as the occasions in their lives demand that they seem to have a self. So there are characters in this book who I think in some ways are subject to that same pressure.

The book has this (mostly) tripartite structure where we’re looking at the post-war, pre-Sixties left, and then the Sixties left, and then the slow fade into the present. The question of the culture of politics is expressed in these different phases over and over—and the dynamic between culture and politics changes. In Rose’s period, the politics are in the forefront and the culture is the supporting thing around it. That relationship flips in the Sixties—


—and then we come to the contemporary dilemma, where we understand how culturally we’re inflected as “the Left” but the sense of what the politics of that are becomes vague (both laugh), and the characters are feeling around for that.And in that sense in the end it feels elegiac, in dealing with the hangover of the 20th century—with Rose as this exemplary figure of the 20th century.

I like your reading and I myself wonder about where the book points. I feel that I wanted to just capture the sensations of trying to apprehend all of this stuff at once, to really contemplate Rose and the 20th century from the exact moment that I was writing, where Occupy erupted and presented all of its own perplexities and in some ways was like beholding the entire 20th-century of the American Left in a tweet—it did the whole thing in 140 characters and then evaporated, right? Every piece of promise, every piece of inspiration, every perplexity, every factional, forehead-smacking, self-destructing behavior was rehearsed, and then we’re left to just gaze on the afterglow.

But yeah, again and again of course I’m writing about how the past isn’t the past—it’s the Faulkner principle, that it isn’t dead, it’s not even past, it’s with us. I think one of my great experiences coming of age and investigating the culture that I took for granted was realizing, okay, so I grew up kind of in a hippie house and I grew up on the Sixties and that cultural awareness, that interest led me very directly back to the late 1950s, all the stuff that in the typical account erupts into the Sixties, right? “Oh, everything was so repressed, and then the beatniks fight against this.” But you have these little glimmers, you have the folk music and you have Rod Serling, you have a Cold War culture that was very tantalizing to me. The stuff that was the precursor to the Sixties.

Well, once you make that insight that the Sixties is really about the Fifties, the next step that’s sort of inevitable is to realize how much everything is still a reaction to the enormous trauma of World War Two, and how we’re living still in the footprint of this midcentury nightmare.

Yet we for the most part see all of that reflected in shadow—because we start with the moment of the end of Rose’s Communist life, and there are a couple of flashbacks to moments from it. There’s not that much of her heyday as an activist, of what Party life was like for her.

I could plead cowardice or incapacity in some ways. The hardest thing for me to do in this book was to go the furthest back in time—I’m a terrible skeptic of historical fiction, so here I am writing it in terror of making the same kind of unpersuasive marks on the page that cause me to reject so much historical fiction when I read it. And I employed every strategy I could think of to self-authorize, right, but also to find ways to incorporate my doubt or my reservations into the work.

It’s one reason the time structure of the book was so fragmented—my belief that the past isn’t some diorama that you can step back into and explore and reactivate, it’s constructed of our present understanding. It’s in a totally, totally confusing dialogue with our present frameworks and experience and language. So I wanted to show present-day characters thinking about this stuff, recalling it or trying not to.

Another reason for the inaccessibility of that earlier period, I felt—it’s there in intriguing flashes—is this notion of “orders from Moscow.” Unlike most any other kind of American activist history you could talk about, the specific Communist Party history has this viral, alien infection in it.

Absolutely, and people recollecting those experiences—and I think this probably did get into my nervous system—they are, they’re like characters in a Philip K Dick story: They’re recollecting an important part of their lives and yet they don’t know what they were doing or who they were doing it for or with. If three out of four of the members of my cell were FBI informants and the fourth was taking orders direct from Moscow and pretending to be a really-into-American-labor-movements guy, who was I in that part of my life when I believed in that cell?

Which means that those recollections, which are so deeply formative, are at the same time totally unstable; they exist under multiple suspensions of disbelief.

And after the 1956 Stalinist revelations, that becomes a secret under-history for why the politics of the Sixties became so complex and so culturalized, because the overt politics of the previous time had this taint about them.

And if you don’t trust anyone over 30, and if you say and do illegal things like smoke pot or countercultural gestures like free love, then you’re guaranteeing that the people you’re with are simpatico. You’ve eradicated the question of whether or not you’re complicit with some horrible other system if everything you do is anti-authoritarian, and unsystematic, right?

At least until the late Sixties, when the FBI figured out how to simulate that.

Right, it wasn’t that long before the appeal of infiltrating those groups was enough that you couldn’t trust your cell anymore there, either. But still, you could really see it as a very direct response—no authority is to be trusted is the emergent concept.

For most of us, I think the average experience is a kind of tangential relationship to the politics of our families—a family’s more-or-less liberal or more-or-less conservative, and at some point maybe you define yourself against that, and then come to some kind of equilibrium with it, which alters it. You carry on your family culture but it evolves. But then there’s a radical family, in which politics are such a shaping part of life. This story ends up seeming to me as the exception that can mirror the norm, that can bring those parts of life to reflection. And I wondered if you thought about that function: What’s the value of telling this story of this kind of marginal side of the culture to people who didn’t grow up in that way?

I think that in the simplest sense I felt like the book was a piece of witnessing. And I don’t mean autobiography, because if you took it as one you’d be deeply confused, but that lives were lived in certain ways—that people did orient so deeply, however muddled some of the results, that they absorbed their sense of identity and even family identity so deeply in the idea of political gestures or political affiliations or activism. And that, yeah, it can assert in the place of, say, a deep religious orthodoxy in family definition. I think that would probably be the nearest available [comparison]. It’s guesswork on my part, since I didn’t experience that myself and don’t know so many people who did, although I’m always very, very compelled when I hear about extricating one’s identity [in those situations].

I’ve got a friend who has got a memoir in progress—I’ve read it in manuscript—who grew up in Christian Science. And his family romance is all entwined in the things that you had to also believe to be a member of his family and believe them about your body, about your choices. At college his friend would offer him an Aspirin, and how does he explain that he’s never had an Aspirin? (laughs)

Do you feel that most people who come out of those countercultural experiences carry that “outsider” feeling continuously? Or, when the movement the family was embedded with dissolves, does the assimilation happen relatively easily back into the mainstream, with the next generation?

I think that most outsider identities run very deep and are very formative, even when they’re overcompensated for. I think of people I know who live very normatively on the surface, who come out of counterculture parents. One of the first things that comes to mind is that I know both of Philip K. Dick’s daughters, and the way they dealt with being from that family. They’re very compelling personalities to me because they basically have lived—the elder daughter especially has kind of lived as a suburban mom—but then again, they are iconoclastic, they have this deep kind of intellectual interrogation of the surface of everyday life that is a legacy they couldn’t possibly shrug off whether they chose to or not.

But this question tempts me to make the same kind of universalization that I made earlier: American identities are very wedded to the idea of individualism, iconoclastic, the freedom to define yourself as different. So outsiderness is a tricky thing. It’s not like we’re a society that identifies as conformist. We may end up conformist, I think a lot of people do, but … Everyone in America is encouraged to believe they are some kind of special fringe or frontier or clan in a way, inside this giant osmosis of clans.

And yet, another character at one point paraphrases a Doris Lessing passage to say that “the problem with all utopian ideologies is that they pit themselves against the tyranny of the bourgeois family, and that it’s basically hopeless.” That seems to be still an open question by the time the book ends—which one does assert more power over time, how patterns reproduce themselves, the competition between that family bond and any other idea.

That’s something that fixates me, and I wouldn’t imagine I will ever have a conclusion. But that tension between the power of self-definition and the possibilities of unconventional affiliation, unconventional sexualities, unconventional familial structures—I write again and again about “fake families,” the rock band, or the little clans of people that form the science-fiction convention, or the way the mutants end up in a kind of family relation at the end of Amnesia Moon. I’m constantly writing about the way people make these Temporary Autonomous Zones that are also reproducing kinship of various kinds. This is something that I obviously am hypnotized by in my own experience and in the lives I see around me.

To come back to Occupy for a moment, I think it’s interesting the book ends on that note—of observing something that isn’t quite a movement, that hasn’t quite got that “family” thing developed. I thought it a risky thing to take on something so ephemeral and so recent, something we’re so unsettled in our relation to, even whether we’ll feel five years from now that it was important. So I wondered how you considered that, as an artist: should I use this material?

Well, Occupy erupted when I was halfway through the book, and I am enormously susceptible to Left inspiration, and I felt this unbelievable onset. I remember this crazy couple of weeks where I thought, “Oh my god, does my book have a happy ending?!” (laughs) And then I also was riveted by the different convolutions and the different experiences that were being had. Of course, as artistic practice, just as I didn’t [depict] the assassinations in the Sixties, I didn’t portray Zuccotti Park. Instead I picked this weird, super-marginal, little mirror-Occupy, which of course there were hundreds of.

Even Toronto’s version was a little bit like that.

Yeah. So was I apprehensive? Yes, but I also felt commanded. I felt like, That is what this book is for. I’d demanded already of myself that I bring it up to the present, so I’m going to have to encompass this in some way. And the way to make that feel okay was to remember that I was writing from the position of “Can I get a witness?” I’m going to say lives were lived this way, these things occurred—I’m not going to try to demand of myself or of my reader that we understand what it all means.

Some people have interpreted the book as much more cynical than I would have thought.

I think I’ve seen both, and I almost feel like that’s an expression of my success (laughs) in some perverse way. I’ll connect this to—and this may seem very strange—one of the very first things I did when I was a writer, which was to realize that I wanted to write about drugs. That I was going to write about drug use, because to me it was a real part of life. Again, it had finally a kind of witnessing aspect. I said: You know, this is in life but you only see it either denounced or denied, or exalted as totally radical and revolutionary and cool. I’m going to split the difference on the judgments and the frameworks; I’m just going to show that my characters do drugs.

And when I began to publish works that depicted it, I would get again and again this right-left response that in a peculiar way gratified me. People who wanted me to be anti-drug would say, “You really showed how depraved it is.” And people who wanted me to be a cool William S. Burroughs, part of the annex of literature that tells you to do drugs, were like, “Ooh, wow, you’re one of those.” And I was like, you know what, I just showed my characters doing drugs, and the experience is actually conditional—highly conditional. (laughs)

I feel in a funny way that I would say the same thing about my portrayal of Occupy, and of Left movements overall. From a position of anxious Left wishes for consolation or endorsement, my book must be desperately disappointing and strike people as very cynical. Needless to say, people on the right are dismissing me, without even reading it, as a Red. So I must have done my job right in a way, which is to say: This is in the world, this is possible—more than possible, it happens all the time. I’m naming things. I guess I would connect it with The Fortress of Solitude as well—you know, my job in writing about the Seventies and about the relationship of those black kids to those white kids was to say: It was so—and wow, what a lot of things it meant, that it was.

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Carl Wilson is the Toronto-based author of Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, named the best music book of the decade by Paste magazine; Nick Hornby wrote in The Believer, "I may well have to insist that you read this book." It is being reissued in new, expanded form in 2013.