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Occupy Realism: Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens

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What went wrong with the American Left? In Dissident Gardens, his latest novel, Jonathan Lethem tries to figure it out. Billed as an “epic yet intimate family saga,” it tries to turn the current apolitical vogue of American family fiction against itself – but never quite manages to pull it off. And we’re left with a novel that, frustratingly, offers nothing particularly revolutionary in its story about a family peopled by revolutionaries.

It opens with the family matriarch, Rose, presented in caricature. Rose is the Old Left, circa 1940s, painted broadly: She is “no” embodied. Rose is a Queens Communist indicted by her own party for fraternizing with the enemy—a black police officer called Douglas Lookins. She is grotesquely sexual, her aging breasts portrayed as both a warning and a joke. Still, at least she is sexual, though reviled by her neighbors and her party for both the force of her body and of her convictions. This, at least, is a cliché preferable to that imposed on her daughter, Miriam, who is liberal maledom’s woman-child dream. Lethem, delightfully at first, pokes fun at this trope: “Marxist Pixie Dream Girl,” he writes, “Miriam Pixie Dream Girl.” But tropes wear thin, and the reader is left with see-through versions of Rose and Miriam, women who ultimately believe in men more than they do their own ideas. They can’t quite shake the stultifying, overlapping straightjacket of muse, handmaiden, and helper. These women wilt and fade, in contrast, to, say, real activists like Shulamith Firestone. In 1967, the chairman of the National Conference for New Politics told Firestone to “Cool down, little girl,” before going on to say that the party had “more important things to do here than talk about women’s problems.” Firestone balked; Rose and Miriam do not. One character dies in a nursing home and the other in Nicaragua, neither having accomplished much outside of terrorizing their local library or mapping their natal charts.

Miriam’s personal downfall mirrors the larger tragedy of her generation and the liberals who followed: she doggedly plays pretend. “Their politics floated in the air, unmoored by theory or party – a cloud politics,” Rose observes of Miriam and her husband Tommy, a fake folk singer. Like the parents of many Millennials, Miriam and Tommy are Baby Boomers, and it is in the Boomers’ recollection of their glorious ’60s and their glorious ’70s that we can see the dissolution of a politics dependent on concretely affecting the lives of the disadvantaged. These days party politics has morphed into the nebulous ornamentation of a “lifestyle” brand.

Of course Millennials haven’t done much better, as Lethem shows in his depressingly accurate portrayal of the excesses of the Occupy movement. The encampment described is the fictional Occupy Cumbow of Cumbow, Maine, the fictional college town where the son of Rose’s lover Douglas, Cicero Lookins, lives and teaches.

Three little tents staked out on the expertly appointed lawn in front of city hall, a card table bearing leaflets and a Dunkin’ Donuts box, a few propped-up signs denouncing Pentagon budgets and bailed-out towers of Manmon . . . the encampment was like a splinter in [Cicero’s] eye.”

Cicero – the gay, black, and overweight professor, or “miraculous triple token,” as he calls himself – walks through the Occupy Cumbow camp at the behest of Sergius Gogan, son of Miriam and grandson to Rose. Sergius is a realistic, if buffoonish, portrait of the kind of liberal men who recite platitudes of equality more because they think it will get them laid rather than out of any deep sense of belief. Put another way: Sergius is the type to visit the “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street” Tumblr and completely miss the irony.

It’s such a pathetically perfect portrayal of the movement that it makes me cringe. The fall of 2011 is still vivid to me, as are the many marches from Copley Square to Newbury Street (Boston’s main shopping stretch) when we shouted: “Off the sidewalks, into the streets!” The movement did veer off the sidewalks, and straight into the history books: By May of that year, Occupy had all but died, as it became victim of its own “cloud politics,” in love more with the idea of activism than concrete goals or demands or even dreams. Perhaps this is why Lethem devotes so few pages to it; compared to the century that came before it, the “American Autumn” seems almost trifling. As Wordsworth wrote of another ill-fated revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / When to be young was very heaven.”

Or, as Lethem more succinctly writes it, in an exchange between Sergius and Lydia, Occupy Cumbow’s representative activist: “I mean, a little presence in Cumbow is nice, but at the big ones, one thing everybody learned is, if you’re spending all your time feeding the homeless, you’re not organizing anymore.” The two are in the bathroom stall, in flagrante delicto. It’s as damning a condemnation as any.

But Lethem’s critique stops at condemnation. As a result, Dissident Gardens seems more a genre exercise in family fiction than an actual attempt to wrestle with the flaws of the American political landscape. Political events are used as character development, a means by which Dissident Gardens’ cast can grow, explore, and argue amongst themselves—and only themselves. In their self-absorption, Lethem paints a damning portrait, but he doesn’t quite go far enough. “Let Lenny be the last aboard the Me Decade before it collapsed, before it was uncovered as a Ponzi scheme of herpes and divorce,” the foul-mouthed Lenin “Lenny” Angrush—Rose’s cousin—thinks to himself on his way to the 1978 Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. This is some dark, precise comedy—and if the book contained a ’40s-era Communist meeting, a late-’60s consciousness-raising group, or a 2011 Occupy assembly rendered with this same kind of gallows humor, Lethem’s point would have been better served.

Give us a march, Lethem! Give us politics in action—but, like the American Left, the American novel (this one included) has wilted, more concerned with the subtleties of more-or-less happy families than in inciting a revolution. At least in this one, there’s no bird watching.

Lethem, to his credit, knows this; “Realism enforces a normative sense of what constitutes reality, and embeds this enforcement in the contract between the reader and the writer,” he said in a recent Los Angeles Review of Books interview. “In the context of that argument, realism fails to interrogate all sorts of things. . . . Not that un-realism is guaranteed to accomplish that, either!” It’s an argument of form and language as well as subject matter—and in both cases, I’d prefer something a little wilder, a little stranger, a little more strident than this careful articulation of the sins of the Left.


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