(Random House, 2013)
A year after its publication, Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens has received a range of reviews which have either praised or dismissed the novel: the only constant has been the reviewer’s focus: naturally, given the genre, it is on plot, characters, point of view, as well as on how Lethem writes “the political.” Given the language of Dissident Gardens, however, this “natural” generic focus betrays the unique insights of his prose, the echoes of the language he uses, and the dissidences it evokes, politically and aesthetically.
Dissident Gardens moves the novelist’s characters across boroughs: from Motherless Brooklyn into grandmotherly Queens, to three generations of leftist radicals who flow from the life of matriarch Rose Angrush-Zimmer, “the Last Communist” occupying a plot of land called Sunnyside Gardens.
Rose, however, is more staunch personae (“the Red Queen” of Greater Queens) than staunch ideologue: from her urban insistence on not joining her husband Albert Zimmer in the Jersey homesteads (read “the sticks”) peopled with Jewish farmer-communists to her sleeping with a black police officer (Douglas Lookins) and being banished by party functionaries because of it. Rose is singular: she has the political chutzpah to proudly reconcile “the manliness in the pacifism” of her non – combatant husband (Albert) with the love for “a man in uniform,” ( Lookins) with whom she has an affair. For Rose, “everything [is] always, by its nature, its own opposite,” and, as such, truly dialectical.
When we first meet her, she is already in opposition, “a student of no.” The novel begins with a chapter called “Two Trials”: the debt to Kafka is clear here and across the novel. Ideological performance anxiety has beset Rose, who is “arrested” by her comrades for not being true to the bureaucracy of the communist cell by violating the golden rule: she is a “red” sleeping with the enemy “blue,” a New York cop.
Lethem is adept at etching the sign of this character’s “no” personae into the language with which he shapes her. For example, towards the end of the novel, we see the elderly Rose in an imaginary encounter with the television figure of Archie Bunker in a tavern on Northern Boulevard, and her political condition is revealed: “The century’s great comedy: that Communism had never existed, not once. So what was there to oppose.” In a subtle signature, Lethem rhymes the dissidence (my italics):
Rose existed. Communism, not so much. And for what did Rose exist. To talk and read and compel.
Rose/oppose—the rhyme includes her name and what it signifies as a political force beyond ideology: Rose exists in order to oppose, “to talk and read and compel” as quite literally a political body—in the space between one person and another’s affairs.
Lethem’s “Red Queen”—part Rosa Luxembourg, part Hannah Arendt—paves the way for a cast of idiosyncratic characters floating across different eras, each person’s story loosely related to another’s and each assuming Rose’s revolutionary mantle in some form across four sections of four chapters in the book. Lenny (née Lenin) Angrush, Rose’s cousin, is an old school communist dreamer who imagines a future of socialist baseball in Queens. In the next generation, Miriam, Rose’s daughter, joins a commune in Greenwich Village with her husband Tommy Gogan, a folksinger, before they are called to “the poet’s revolution” in Nicaragua, only to be killed there. Their son, Sergius, is commanded to despise property before he learns the word “materialism”(“Expect not the GI Joe, Demand not the Sugar Cereal”), is raised as an orphan in a Quaker school, and takes up his revolutionary moment in an Occupy tent in the New England college town of Cumbow.
In the presence of these characters and others, however, there is more at stake than discussions about the essences and fates of ideologies, party platforms or social movements. Unfortunately, reviewers don’t get this. In the American Reader, Hal Parker, for instance, claims “the absence of political ideas” in Lethem’s prose and projects his own desires for these ideas onto the book. Marco Roth, in the London Review of Books, flippantly discredits the political substance of the novel by assuming the “characters … [only] define themselves by their political loyalties, or believe that politics is a background against which [Lethem’s] characters repeatedly perform scenes of intergenerational conflict and act out classic family resentments” In fact, Roth believes that since “no character in Dissident Gardens voices a conservative position …, then the book gives no sense of the danger of other kinds of radicalism; [and]there is no actual political argument being had.” But for Roth to reduce the political essence of this novel to his misguided desire for a novelist to be fair and balanced or to the hope for the density of the actual political arguments within it is, well, ludicrous: it is to mistakenly ask for conventional, predictable, and didactic takes on what it means to write “the political” into fiction. Roth, like other critics, are blind to the subtle political weight of Lethem’s prose, which reflects the implications of dissidence among people whose lives occupy the Greek concept of the polis, out of which “the political” evolves. As Arendt writes in The Human Condition, in the polis, “true space lies between people” and it is organized among citizens “acting and speaking together” (given the number of Rose’s sexual encounters, one should remember that the urban dictionary gives the Russian, pol, as “sex”), within political environments where they can be free among their peers. Lethem’s fiction asks the question: what does it mean to occupy a dissident social space, to be able “to arouse in himself,” in Arendt’s words, one’s “own antagonist,” to be independent and free and self-critical in the polis among what Lethem writes are “men costumed in independent thought.” The locus for the answers to this question is in Sunnyside Gardens, as well as in a New York state of mind and in the realities and dreams of dissidence these places conjure among its inhabitants.
Those dreams, of course, rest on the very real history of a 1920’s planned housing complex dedicated to "health, open space, greenery, and idyllic community living for all.” Its foundation was shaped by architects, urban planners, and activist visionaries dreaming of egalitarian homes in a common “suburb” community within the city: an anachronistic, urban, politically informed Woodstock, a back to the garden moment in Hudson brick. Among its shapers and live-ins were Lewis Mumford, who believed the “Gardens” should include “a robust political life, with effective collective action and a sense of renewed public responsibility” (Mumford 1938 p. 484). In Lethem’s novel, it is the space between the lives of these garden residents and their lineage which is at issue: how they cross each other, politically, personally, in their bodies, in their ideals. This would grant Lethem’s novel a different political status than most reviewers have assumed for it—again, a politics of the polisemerging out of the gardens’ real and existential foundation.
But let’s go back in time and ask for the long view: what is Sunnyside Gardens? As an almost Queens native, I never heard of the place when I arrived at the age of 6 from Haifa, Israel to Jamaica in 1958, three years after the time the novel begins. No one in my family knew of the ideals of this socialist inspired housing community. Coming from the historically unforgiving holy land, my parents were rightfully clueless and self-righteously suspicious about the possibility of history in America. It was difficult to imagine any historical site in Queens, let alone the ethos of kibbutzim in Sunnyside Gardens, when all my parents wanted was for new world gold to drop from the orchard trees and sky high housing projects in America.
The summer I arrived another mythology was developing for a six-year-old and his father clueless to baseball but intrigued nevertheless, a fascinating sports story Lethem explores, literally and as political metaphor. It was the year in which the Dodgers left Brooklyn and the Giants left New York (Manhattan) for the West Coast. For an immigrant boy given, of all things, a green baseball bat by his father in order to, of all things, fit in among his peers, I saw the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers, as idols, one large size fits all: the only game in town. Many years later I offered this “fit” as my excuse for being a Yankee fan to my Greenpoint born Italian-American, Catholic Dodgers-blue, father-in-law: “forgive me, father, mea culpa, but your city gave me no choice. A foreigner wanting to blend in with the big boy Americans, I was all but hostage to the big boy Yanks: besides, they always won and Queens was vacant. We had not yet met the Mets. What was not to like for a six year old boy?” Even Lethem would have agreed: “The Yankees had Mantle, his jingoistic homeruns.”
I bring up this baseball chatter because of the orange and blue colors that grace Lethem’s hard cover book. The colors represent the teams who abandoned the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field in 1958—the Giants’ uniforms privileged orange and the Dodgers’ highlighted blue—as well as the ball club of the future for Queens, the Mets, who merged into their work clothes the two colors, perhaps as a sign of renewal in the midst of reconciliation after the two New York clubs were lost to the west coast.
Before that sign, however, Lethem draws another: the thought in the mind of Lenny Angrush that he could introduce to Bill Shea, lawyer for whom the New York Mets stadium was eventually named, a theme song and moniker for Lenny’s newly created (pre-Mets) team in Queens, the “Sunnyside Proletarians,” whose fantasy (blue and orange) colors “encode[d] the Dodgers and Giants.” The “Pros” would play on behalf of Lenny’s democratic imagination and the factory workers of Queens in the new Continental League, an invention of Shea, the ultimately failed third league (a third political party, so to speak) to the two party system of the National and American Leagues. The dissidence of Lethem’s communistic gardens is in this third space.
But why does this matter? For one thing, Lenny’s scheme is not shaped by concrete dogma, meaning it reflects an ethos of everyday affairs among workers. Even Miriam, “wild for opposition” like her mother, sends letters to her father confessing that for both she and Tommy “politics … is daily life.” Lenny wants to recover this political and social foundation upon which the daily life of the borough rests—factory workers, for example—to give them the team which most resembles them—the “Proletarians of Sunnyside”: The Pros. And, through the Pros, to bring back that foundation, the Brooklyn Dodgers, who Lenny sees as “the mighty corrector of segregated baseball, secret official team of the American Communist Party….”(97) Would not the Brooklyn Dodgers fit the bill-the underdog club, playing for the workers against the bosses, the players living among their fans in the Brooklyn community: the American communist foundation upon which the Sunnyside Pros can renovate and which like Lenny has to look into the faces of “the revolution’s worst enemy,” the self-righteous “beefy templates” of “moral bandits” like Bill Shea:
Not for the first time, Lenny Angrush bumped into his own innocence, a part that had still underestimated corruption. This was nothing to congratulate himself over in a world of pragmatists and price tags, a world as yet un-renovated by revolution. (83)
Lenny in those years conceived the Sunnyside Proletarians, a place for the truth to hide in plain sight. As the new baseball team would encode the Dodgers and Giants, let what was unnamed be renamed, what was lost be found. Or never actually lost, because it had never yet existed.
True Communism was by definition a prophecy of the future. (102)
And the same can be said of “True Baseball,” perhaps a metaphor for the revolution to come, lost and found and restored in Queens, yet to arrive yet already there, in the past. In On Revolution, Arendt speaks of restoration or renovation as the original meaning of revolution. So that any foundation must be renovated, like a stadium restored over time, to be revolutionary: true to its past and yet moving independently of its past, cellular.
But who, in Lethem’s political imagination, occupies these different cells (variations on the words “cell” and “occupy” permeate the novel), how do they correspond, and how is the dissidence in them reflected in his writing? James Scully, in his brilliant book, Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice, writes of the distinction between protest and dissident poetry.
Protest poetry is conceptually shallow….Such poetry is issue-bound, spectatorial—rarely the function of an engaged artistic life.... Dissident poetry, however, does not respect boundaries between private and public, self and other. In breaking boundaries it breaks silences: speaking for, or at best with, the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it into the middle of life rather than shutting it off into a corner. It is a poetry that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply as a mirror of it (5).
Lethem’s Rose is reflected in a writing which “does not respect boundaries between private and public, self and other.” As such, we see the dissidence in her acts. For example, in the chapter where she is the only white person attending the funeral of her black lover, (because of whom she was put on trial by her Party Cohorts) Rose, as mentioned earlier, imagines herself aligned with the iconic racist, anti-communist television character of Archie Bunker. Clearly, Rose and Archie occupy different political “cells.” Yet, over a beer, and in a fantasy encounter with Archie in a Queens bar, the communist/anti-communist boundary between them is broached and she joins him in “Comraderism”:
One afternoon Archie, resplendent surrealist poet, gave Rose’s secret mood a name. “Comraderism.” He’d been trying to name the feeling between himself and others there, the men whom he lashed with insults when he wasn’t driving them into muttering perplexity at his baroque views on the Polish. (“people of the Polack persuasion lean toward what you might call a certain lack of drive”), the Italians (“Packed into the subway like sardines we was, with no lights and no fans and me standing next to a three-hundred pound Eyetalian, half of which was pure garlic”), and eschatology (“You liberals got more ways for the world to end than a dog has fleas”)…
“Comraderism,” she repeated, moving one stool nearer. “I’m with you, Archie, I don’t care what anyone else says. You and me are a couple of unrepentant comraderists.”
It is Lethem’s Archie whose dissidence we also see and hear, who “breaks boundaries” and “silences,” who gives the name of “Comraderism” to Rose’s “secret mood” in the same way Lenny names the Dodgers as the “secret official team of the American Communist Party.” In the midst of her dialogue with Archie, Rose introduces him to The Communist Manifesto:
My dear Archie, I only mean there’s something in the way you and Harry can be relied upon always to be buying rounds for the house, something which somehow seems to testify for a from-each-according-to-his ability-to-each-according-to-his-need view of things. (274)
The anthropologist David Graeber, in his book, The Democracy Project, addresses the above reference to Marx’s text as a possible inroad into how “communism” could work, perhaps for the “Comraderists” of the world:
I’ve made this argument repeatedly before and it’s a simple one. All it requires is to stop imagining “communism” as the absence of private property arrangements, and go back to the original definition: “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” If any social arrangement grounded and operating on such a principle can be described as “communism,” all of our most fundamental understandings of social reality completely change. It becomes apparent that communism—at least in its most attenuated form—is the basis of all amicable social relations, since, sociality of any sort always assumes a certain baseline communism, an understanding that, if the need is great enough (e.g., to save a drowning person) or the request small enough (e.g., a light, directions), these are the standards that will be applied.
This is, perhaps, one “secret” Lethem is after: “true communism may be a prophecy of the future,” as Lenny at one point thinks, but “sociality of any sort,
“God creates the world by going away from the world,” she said.
“I know I’m slow, Rose, but I just don’t get it.”
“If he’s here, He takes up all the room. It’s only by leaving that He opens up a possibility for anything else. For all this to occur.”
This play on the Kabbalistic idea of Tzimtzun is what Rose, mistaking Cicero for her husband, Albert, applies to Capitalism, a false God unlike God, who/which would not get out of the way:
“This, Albert, is the reason we never had a revolution in America….Capitalism wouldn’t get out of the way. We couldn’t breathe. We couldn’t begin to exist. It filled all the available space.”
“The God that Refused to Fail?”
You did okay, though, Rose. You existed for a while. It’s in the record books.”
And if Capitalism wouldn’t get out of the way, well, then Rose almost by default and in opposition must get in the way by “existing” in the space left open, in “the space between one person and another,” “for all this to occur.” How, Lethem suggests, can one exist as a dissident in a world filled and pre-occupied by ideology? Are the real politics of dissidence there where daily citizens engage each other in daily affairs and talk past the stranglehold of competing beliefs? How, for example, can Douglas Lookins, Rose’s “impossible [Black] policeman”—“her Eisenhower-loving giant”—and Archie Bunker, the white, anti-Semitic racist, which Rose loves—meet and exist togetherthough Rose’s passion for both of them, in Rose’s fantasy script, where Archie of all people has adopted an orphan Jew? (And, in a telling corporate distortion of this co-existence, how can Bill Shea as “interrogation cop,” the litigator, the power broker of political influence in a system of perpetual profits be aligned with his political enemies, Communist Party functionaries, both occupying the power brokers’ moral high ground, a “sarcophagus of propriety?”). These are the dissident moments characters act out in Lethem’s book, where “solidarities” among workers “bullied” by Rose’s “ham fisted comrades” “put to shame the abstractions of posturing organizers”; where ideals collapse into strange local “comraderisms” between very different bodies. As Edward Dahlberg once said: “there is more political energy in friendship than in ideology.” Lethem brilliantly captures the dissident acts of characters existing in the space of this kind of political energy, in this kind of city.
“In breaking boundaries between self and other,” Lethem captures the essence of this dissidence with characters whose experiences echo their trust and suspicion of each other. As such, in Scully’s words, Lethem’s text is a prose which “talks back,” one which “would act as part of the world.”And dissidence does talk back: as dissonance.
For Lethem, the off note is the right note. When Archie Bunker, for example, mouths the word “shalom” at Stretch Cunningham’s funeral, a friend Archie did not know was Jewish until he comes to the funeral, (and whom we discover, in another moment of dissidence, “anglicized his name from Kuhnheimr to Cunningham,” and “slaved his whole adult life on the loading dock, mixing uneasily with the Jewish family who owned the place”), the word sounds alien in his anti-Semitic mouth. But there is a curious rightness about it, an irony for the man who has a history of spewing anti-Semitic abstractions in the midst of saying “shalom” to the memory of an old friend. In speaking “shalom,” Archie, anti-Semite, is someone not to be trusted, yet he is someone who shapes a space between self and other and, in his innocence, unwittingly joins “The Stateless and ironical People of the Book—in a (trepidatious and wondrous) New York state of mind.”
Archie, anti-Semite, hadn’t known until he walked into the funeral that his beloved friend was Jewish. Archie went on: “Stretch was one of them up guys, one of the uppest guys you ever met, always laughing, telling jokes himself, and many a Jewish joke he told….”
Archie Bunker was, truly, a newborn in disguise of an aging hard hat…. With no one to help him [he] picked his way down from the chapel’s riser. “Shalom,” he said quietly, glancing at the casket as he passed it, and in his awe at having spoken the alien word it was as if Rose had heard it for the first time.
Yes, Archie, we have a word for what you want to say to your friend, Stretch, a word that doesn’t exist in any other tongue and you wouldn’t use it if it did. You’d think it was a Commie word and you wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. For what was “shalom”? Not merely “peace.” “Completeness”? Maybe. “Reciprocity”? Maybe that, too. But also “hello,” “goodbye,” and even “good riddance.” “All men are brothers [Rose ironically echoing Archie’s TV show, All in the Family], yes, have it your way, now get out of my face, I’ve got a more important destination.” Perhaps truly for the first time Rose felt the abjured power of her Judaism, its sway over the lumpen American mind. Before the onset of the beliefs that had split her from the Jews, Rose was already part of an international conspiracy. Yes. The stateless and ironical People of the Book. Behind all prejudice against Jews lay trepidation and wonder, exactly like that she now glimpsed in Archie. (266)
“Shalom”, “Hello”, and “good riddance,”—the word Archie says and Rose hears, “as if for the first time,” is the word that welcomes and talks back—a dissident, self-critical word necessary for a reciprocal, complete world. Lethem often returns to describing characters who speak and reflect this dissidence in multiple ways, often in suspicion.
When, for example, Rose’s daughter Miriam appears as a contestant on Art James’s The Who, What, or Where Game, a television quiz show from the (69-74), Lethem’s narrator describes “the host” and the subversive element about him, which even Miriam has not grasped:
No one being immune to present fashion, the tidily groomed, clean-shaven Art James wears beneath his tailored gray suit a purple shirt and a wide tie that looks like it may have been designed by Klee or Kandinsky. Miriam would gladly wear a dress made from the material of Art James’s tie. Nonetheless, as he glad-hands around the greenroom making everyone feel at home and confident for their imminent entry onto the show’s set, Art James is sheerly a phenomenon of time travel, a sealed voyager from the indefinite moment in the 1950’s when anyone Miriam’s age had been first introduced by television to a certain dapper, snappily enunciating, and unspecifiably north-Midwestern version of United States masculinity, that of “the host.” Host of nearly anything, it didn’t matter. The type is characterized above all by its successful sublimation of the disarranging trauma of the generation of World War II veterans from which the breed produced itself. It has colonized the public imagination to such a degree that the present mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, is, effectively, a “host.” What Miriam doesn’t happen to know—for all the trivial facts that, blizzarding in her brain as they do, qualify her to compete on one of the tougher of television quiz shows, and despite her specific curatorial fondness for the secret Jewish or Polish or Russian names of various blandly appellated U.S. celebrities—is that Art James’s name at birth was Artur Simeonvich Elimchik (112).
Here the parasite—James’s original Russian (Communistic?) name—has entered or been “sublimated” through the American “host,” what Americans have always feared: the invasion of the communist body snatchers. Lethem’s sci-fi wording—“the breed produced itself,” the host has “colonized the public imagination”—tells us as much about this alien, yes “dissident” undermining of America by communists disguised as “dapper,” snappily enunciating, friendly, and charismatic types who could probably sell you your birthright, as it does the openness with which the people are willing to be snookered. And these hosts, appearing one degree removed from incarnations of Melville’s The Confidence Man, could pop up anywhere and be welcomed with open arms, even in politics, as mayors.
Lethem uses his narrator to recruit 1969 New York City Mayor John Lindsay as a parallel host, who in reality did have a “host-like” resemblance to Art James. But within this inviting environment, Lethem, again, hits the right note by playing the wrong one, which begins with the title of the chapter, “Cities in Crisis.” Lindsay was infamously known for “hosting” the worst blizzard in the city’s history. With no explicit mention of the crisis that was the blizzard of ‘69’, Lethem summons its resonance with the word “blizzarding.” As Miriam faces “the who what where” questions of host Art James, “the trivial facts [are] blizzarding in her brain,” recalling for the reader that other host, Mayor Lindsay, who became an outlier in his own city, who created the crisis of ‘69’ because he gave special treatment to cleaning up the blizzard in Manhattan versus the outer boroughs, like Queens, home of Miriam’s family.
In choosing this word “blizzarding” for Miriam, in making her appear as a friendly contestant around the charismatic, welcoming hosts, James and Lindsay, Lethem not only reminds us of Lindsay’s political failure but points us to the distinction between how we receive facts as trivial smoothed out constructions of reality (e.g. categories in a game show) and how those facts are documented and experienced in the everyday lives people lead which “talk back” (become dissidence—how the outer borough Queens did talk back to Lindsay’s blizzard) to that artificially shaped reality. In the process, the suspect cache of secret Russian names at the heart of Americana (the quiz show and its amicable host) is linked, in this section of Lethem’s novel, to Jewish dissidents with outer-borough accents (Rose’s Yiddish) who try to sublimate those accents into proper English, who try to fit in (“a grain of the Communist one-worlder resided in Rose’s exalting of a pure English” who “imbued Miriam with a horror of second tongues”—in her case, Spanish), which, in itself, is doubly ironic, since they are, after all, communists in America and, in Miriam’s case, revolutionaries in Nicaragua. In this Kafkaesque intergenerational family and community polis, swirling in paradox without exit (except for the fringes of the outer-borough), Lethem has no choice but to leave us with Rose’s saying, “The True Communist always ends up alone.” And perhaps this is where true dissidence begins, out of the alone, the one, amoeba-like, which has the possibility of replicating, like a cell.
In fact, this is how the novel ends, a tragi-comic send-off, or non-send-off, of Miriam and Tommy’s son, the orphan Sergius, who travels in Kafka’s footprints, by himself. It is one of the funniest chapters in the book, where we see how Lethem’s laying down of Kafka’s tropes across the book finally comes to rest, or unrest.
The time of the novel is now contemporaneous with Occupy, as “Sergius has arrived at the airport from an Occupy encampment with Lydia. They have sex in the bathroom of the Jetport. Before they enter the bathroom, or while they are looking for it, Sergius and Lydia discuss future encampments and Lydia says:
“I’m touring the last camps before they get shut down, it’s a historical thing. You’ve got to take the wider perspective. We’re viral. Where’s the bathroom in here?”
“He’s in New York. I’m supposed to meet him. We’re planning the next action, what comes after the camps….”
“So you’re in a cell?”
Lethem’s timing is perfect. After Sergius’s political question, her answer is sexual. She takes him inside her, as if the presence of a political ideological encampment surrenders to their desire for each other, to the space between their bodies. And then this, after their liaison:
She ended in laughter. “There’s no cell, you big dummy.”
“It’s wherever you are, right now.”
“Occupy. Like a way of being, Sergius. Just living differently.”
“Occupy,” then, is not seen here as exclusively a movement in the lineage of Rose Angrush Zimmer’s American Communism (if anything, for Sergius, it becomes disappointing, “a select vocabulary, an occult dialect”) but it is an open space “wherever you are, a “sociality of any sort …, an understanding that, if the need is great enough (e.g., to save a drowning person) or the request small enough (e.g., a light, directions), these are the standards that will be applied:” Or, for that matter, a moment’s need to occupy an airport bathroom for sex.
In a scene where TSA officers, looking like the post 9/11 Vigilance Guard, meet Kafka’s man from the country Before the Law, Sergius is taken aside after he has been “flagged” for spending too much time at the airport before checking in at the airport kiosk. There is in this final chapter a strange parallel between Sergius’s situation and Rose’s at the start of the novel: both fuck their way out of bureaucratic propriety. Rose is outcast by communist party functionaries for sleeping with a black cop; her grandson, Sergius, is withheld by TSA officials for breaching airport protocol and “occupying” the bathroom with Lydia. In the face of a TSA officer who admits to (“never again”) letting (another) Mohammad Atta past him after 9/11, Sergius’ s attitude is “fuck you,” I was only “occupying your fucking bathroom.” Like Rose, he is “a student of no,” talking back not only to the political bureaucracy of airport security but also to the man whose name invented the watchword for the labyrinth of that bureaucracy: Kafka.
Lethem’s magical move here is to spin the Kafkaesque on its head—the futility of the man from the country (in Kafka’s Before the Law) begging but never getting to his destination and whose attempts at each turn are subverted by the doorkeeper guarding the law, gets echoed but reversed by Sergius trying to convince airport security he and Lydia are not political Occupiers or “fellow travelers” trying to get past the law. Kafka’s man is stopped and waits, eternally, to get inside the Law. He stoops. He gets smaller. He becomes invisible after all his years of waiting. This is his terminus, the end point, the Law’s gate, which can be bureaucratic, legal, or religious, (e.g. the temple’s gates).
With Sergius, things are different. His Kafka moment has been foreshadowed across the novel, most particularly when his father and mother are living in the Village and discussing how the Bowery got its name. Miriam says:
“The Dutch, they had this footpath, leading to the farms and woods. There was a bower here, like a giant arbor.” This, she drew in the mote-strewn air above. “You pass through the Bowery, you’d exited the city, into the wilderness….”
“See [Tommy said], if you think about it, that’s probably the reason the bums and old sailors stack up here. They’re waiting to pass through, even if they don’t realize it. Petitioning for entry, like in a Kafka story.”
“Entry to the gardens.”
“Yes. To Eden.”
“Sure,” she said, “Or else up to Fourteenth Street in hopes of a cut-rate fuck.” (174)
Sergius, as he passes through the airport metal detector, lives out the song his father wrote about the Bowery journey, to pass beneath the bower. He is on the outside—but seen creating an airport security scene. He is stopped yet, as a possible subversive, and unlike Kafka’s anonymous man from the country, his petitioning for entry “to occupy” the airport is ironic as he becomes very “visible before the law”:
His plane by now gone …, he arrived in this crucial indefinite place, this undisclosed location, severed from the life of planet yet not aloft. Arrived at last at this nowhere in which he became visible before the law.
In this visibility, in this “crucial indefinite place,” Sergius arrives in a space and time parallel to the dissident Russian name behind TV host Art James, “a sealed voyager from the indefinite moment in the 1950’s”. (My italics) They occupy the same ambiguous holding area, invading the country either from within (as the “Russian” host of an American game show) or from without (as a complete unknown entering and exiting the airport). Both are dissidents occupying a space alone, coming into a nowhere in an undisclosed location, yet ironically open to action among others. In Sergius’s case, he is a person linked to the actions of a community of people (to Miriam to Rose et al…) and place, which is what defines the polis and in this case the political heritage of Sunnyside Gardens.
The poet Charles Olson conceived the polis as eyes attending: “there are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only / eyes in all heads, / to be looked out of.” And here is Sergius looking out and being seen, creating a scene, and holding true to Olson’s epigraph for his Maximus Poems, “All my life I’ve heard that one makes many.” This is where the one becomes many, a process of becoming of “actual entities,” (which is what Whitehead called them)—a cell—multiplying and connecting. In a 1952 autobiographical statement, Olson writes about the boundaries between self and other, private and public, which is what James Scully says needs to be broken for writing to become politically dissident. Olson writes:
that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right, whatever your are, in whatever job, is the thing… (Olson, Additional Prose).
And here is Sergius, last but not least of Rose’s clan, the “I … in the human universe [who] is the discharge of the many by the one [himself]”, with Lydia’s laughter and words in his ears: “There’s no cell, you big dummy. [The cell] … is wherever you are, right now,” to “occupy.” Unlike Kafka’s man from the country who is stopped “before the law,” Sergius’s momentary stasis holds the possibility of future political action, of danger, when Lethem describes him in “an undisclosed location” as “A cell of one, beating like a heart.” This is one’s isolation in the process of going somewhere and becoming and attending to another: an actual entity, in the process of dividing, replicating, dilating, and possibly corresponding with other cells. This is the empathic bond and dissidence in the space between one cell and another, plotting an action in a holding zone: Lethem’s greenroom occupied by “students of ‘no’—independent and free and self-critical in the polis—those who can imaginatively hope for entry to the politics of the Gardens. “Or to Eden.” “Or else up to Fourteenth Street in hopes of a cut-rate fuck.”
Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York, Penguin Classics, 2006.
Graeber, David. The Democracy Project: A history, A Crisis, A Movement. New York, Spiegel & Grau, 2013.
Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1938.
Olson, Charles. Additional prose: A bibliography on America, Proprioception & other notes & essays (Writing, 31). San Francisco, Four Seasons Foundation, 1971.
Scully, James. Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice. Curbstone Books, Willimantic, Conn, 200
Benjamin Hollander's latest book is In The House-American (Clockroot Books)