I’ve been reading Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel, Dissident Gardens. It’s a kind of family saga about three generations of people born in a development in Queens that in the 1930s and 1940s was home to a community of leftists and Communists. The story starts with two women, Rose Zimmer and her daughter, Miriam, but quickly pans away, before the end of Part I, to focus on two men from the younger generation, Miriam’s son Sergius and Cicero, the son of Rose’s African-American lover, and also on a third man, Miriam’s cousin. These three are the more typical characters in a modern-day highbrow novel, intelligent and alienated, as well as male, and I began wondering what purpose was served by including Miriam and Rose in the story: whether they’re merely a kind of social and cultural backstopping to the men’s personal narratives.
I had already read his previous novel, Chronic City, and that book definitely had a limited cast of women. The narrator and protagonist of Chronic City is a former child actor, Chase Insteadman. The story mostly follows Chase as he bums his way around Manhattan with his more socially involved friends, and the wealthy women whom he charms. One new friend is Perkus Tooth, who’d been an important film critic in the New York avant-garde of the 1970s and 1980s, but who now is living as a recluse. There’s a lot of male bonding between Chase and Perkus Tooth, and various of Perkus’s other male hangers-on. There’s also Perkus’s female assistant, Oona, with whom Chase gets involved; and there’s a foreign woman whom Chase fails to hook up with, who becomes engaged to a politically connected friend of his. Lower Manhattan has been enveloped by a cloud or mist of unexplained origin. Perkus’s Upper East Side apartment block eventually collapses into a sinkhole. There is rumored to be a tiger roaming the city’s subterranean tunnels. There’s an international plot to acquire and trade objects of some unexplained nature and origin. And as befits the title, there’s also an obsession with a particular brand of marijuana. The plot involves Perkus and his friends trying to figure these out, while keeping Perkus alive.
So there are women in this book. I can’t remember all of their names, but I can’t remember all Chase’s male friends’ names, either. But the third plot in the novel involves Chase’s ongoing relationship with his fiancée, Janice. It’s this that lends him poignancy, even within the novel, for he’s become a figure of pity for the entire nation. His fiancée has been trapped in the International Space Station, and worse, she has cancer. Her letters to Chase are published regularly in the newspaper. He’s become, no longer the semi-famous former child actor, but the poor young man whose girlfriend is dying alone in outer space. He is obsessed with the fact that this is what people know about him, and that he has to live up to his role. Except that he is cheating on Janice with Oona. The fact that nobody can know he’s involved with Oona, because it would destroy the public narrative and make everybody hate him, obsesses him even more. So a significant part of the book is about a female character who in some sense doesn’t really matter, because she can’t affect the plot. She matters only because Chase cares about her. She couldn’t be less important. Yet somehow it works.
I really enjoy reading Lethem. When I picked up Chronic City, I’d recently gone through a long list of books that I’d either mostly enjoyed but felt were fluffy and unconvincing (or simply not as finished as they should have been), or had gotten to the end through primarily out of a sense of duty and a kind of intellectual curiosity. I was surprised by how much fun it really was. So far, Dissident Gardens is fun in the same way.