Lethem’s latest mines leftie family lore
AIt’s uniquely Baker, meaning it’s provocative and disturbing, but mostly gentle and funny, making us see the magnificent in the mundane.
It is also a sequel to Baker’s acclaimed 2009 novel The Anthologist, where we first met Chowder, a poet determined to bring rhyme back from the doggerel wilderness. Besides showing Paul as an articulate and lovable character, the book was a leisurely and quite brilliant meditation on literature, with lovely turns of phrase and crystal-clear explanations.
It would seem to be a natural next step to go from promoting more rhyme to creating songs. In Traveling Sprinkler, Chowder tells us he once played the bassoon, he likes music of all kinds and he respects composers both classical and contemporary, Claude Debussy as much as Paul McCartney.
Chowder, who has three books of poetry and an anthology behind him, likes to write in his car. “I can drive somewhere, park, put my notebooks and my papers on the dashboard, clamp on my headphones, and think hard in all directions.”
He is sometimes distracted by what he sees as futile protests such as those calling for a stop to global warming. “What a hopeless cause. The earth has been warming and cooling for a billion years... Why not protest actions that we can easily end,” like the sending of drones to kill people in foreign countries?
His main preoccupation is trying to compose songs, preferably love songs. He buys a guitar and a keyboard and, with the help of a young friend, downloads information and support from Internet sites like “Logic,” learning how to give himself musical accompaniment electronically.
For readers who find his techno-savvy explanations rather difficult to follow, there is a good old-fashioned plot: he still loves his ex-girlfriend Roz. They have a congenial relationship and do keep in touch, but she has a new lover, a doctor named Harris.
Since Chowder is a gentle soul living in rural New Hampshire, he will not resort the final one, set in September 2012, deCommunist is to be, as American political to dramatic action. He will declare his define the chronological limits of the novel, rhetoric has characterized it for the past sire to have Roz return to him and he will with the intervening chapters moving forsix decades, anti-American. wait patiently, content for now to learn MERICAN Communists, it turns out, ward and backward in time, focusing on a The Communists of Dissident Gardens how to compose and perform songs for have a thing for the New York Mets. range of characters closely connected to are devotees of American history and wooing her. He sets up a studio in his barn Or so Jonathan Lethem would have Rose and Miriam. The result is less a narculture, from Abraham Lincoln and the while lyrics pop into head from everyus believe. rative than an unorthodox family portrait. Delta Blues to the New York Mets and where. Even an “Oversize Load” sign on a
In Dissident Gardens, Lethem’s ninth It isn’t so simple as that, though, as the Archie Bunker. truck can set him off: novel, he returns to familiar ground, both members of Rose’s extended and ad hoc If anything, their failure comes from “Yeah, he was driving down the road/ literally and figuratively. Like three of family stand for various veins or permutaa quixotic over-investment in the idea of With an oversize load.” his last four novels (the exception being tions of communism in post-Second World America. Unable to give up on their steadBaker, who lives in Maine, has mastered 2007’s You Don’t Love Me Yet), Dissident War America. fast belief that right will win out over a way of keeping us entertained with little Gardens is set in Lethem’s native New Albert, Rose’s ex-husband, is an East might, Lethem’s characters are doomed more than his language and his individual York City, and in it Lethem turns, as he German proponent of Soviet-style socialby their inability to see past their ideals. way of looking at things. did to great effectiveness in 2003’s The ism. Her younger cousin Lenny, whose It is in Rose’s last, and least likely, scion, Traveling Sprinkler is a welcome addiFortress of Solitude, to his own family’s given name is Lenin, is a utopian Marxher grandson Sergius Gogan, that Lethem tion to the Baker library, which includes history for his subject matter. ist-Leninist, theoretically skilled, but offers a glimmer of hope for American such diverse novels as The Mezzanine,
The results here are mixed, but worthincompetent in practice. communism. Sergius is a blank slate, Vox and House of Holes, and such enwhile. Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s lover, orphaned then raised by Quakers, who grossing non-fiction works as U and I and
At the centre of the novel is Rose is a professor of literary theory, whose discovers his inheritance from Rose not The Way the World Works. Angrush Zimmer, an unrepentant and post-structuralist Marxism seems, like in the song cycle he intends to compose Oh, but why the title Traveling Sprinkler? lifelong Communist. Like Lethem’s own most aspects of his character, designed to about his mother and grandmother, but in maternal grandmother and mother, Rose shock and impress those around him. his discovery of his own strident antiPossibly as a metaphor for Chowder’s and her daughter, Miriam, are residents, Miriam and her husband Tommy naiveauthoritarianism in the novel’s closing meandering prose — but he actually does at the novel’s outset, of a Jewish communly attempt to translate their Greenwich pages. own a travelling sprinkler he loves and ist enclave in Sunnyside, Queens. Village folk homilies into revolutionary Though Dissident Gardens lacks the imconsiders it one of the few great Amer
The opening chapters, however, recount action in the jungles of Nicaragua, with mediate intensity of The Fortress of Soliican achievements: “It’s what America did their separate ejections from this wouldpredictably disastrous results. tude’s portrait of 1970s Brooklyn, it is a before it threw itself wholeheartedly into be utopia. Rose has been kicked out of the The story is a family tragedy, but it’s smart, sprawling and insistently intimate the making of weapons that kill everyCommunist party by local apparatchiks also a political allegory. The collapse of portrait of a family whose politics underone.” as punishment for her affair with a black Rose’s legacy is parallel to and bound up pin and undermine their every action. police officer, and 17-year-old Miriam is in the failure of postwar communism to evicted by Rose for a failed attempt to lose find a foothold in America. her virginity in her mother’s home. At the same time, Lethem works to de
The opening chapter, set in 1955, and bunk the common conception that to be a