Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Two Jonathan Novels, Two Mini-Duds

Today, Jonathan Lethem's new novel Dissident Gardens hits bookstores. It's his first novel since 2009's Chronic City, and his first since moving from his beloved (and frequent setting for his fiction) Brooklyn to take over the teaching post previously held by David Foster Wallace at Pomona College in Pomona, Calif. 

I got a pre-pub copy of Dissident Gardens, and so I can tell you there's good news and bad news. First the good: If you're a diehard, and I do mean DIEHARD, Lethem fan, you'll probably love Dissident Gardens. The bad news: If you're not, you probably won't.

Dissident Gardens is, in a word, dense. It's the story of Rose Zimmer, a Communist living in Sunnyside, Queens, in the mid-1950s. And it's the story of various other characters — Rose's daugher, Miriam, Rose's lover's son, Cicero, Rose's gross cousin, Lenny, and Rose's grandson, Sergius. The novel's told in 20- to 30-page episodic increments, each slowly (and slog-tastically) building the story of each character — showing how interactions with each other in their formative years affects the way these characters interact with each other in the future.

It's also a novel is about ideology — specifically how rigid ideology (Rose's communism, etc.), ideology that doesn't consider actual human people and the ideologist's relationship to them, can easily alienate the people closest. What happens, the novel asks, when firmly held beliefs fail to bear out in the real world?

A few of these mini-stories are really entertaining — one of the first chapters is teenage Miriam coming home with a boy, determined to lose her virginity, but Rose interrupts, and they fight. And this singular fight affects their life-long relationship. Another shows Sergius in modern times, meeting a girl at an Occupy at a small college town.

But for the most part, these episodes (Lenny trying to talk William Shea, the new owner of the Mets, into using a folk song as the new team's theme) were either just weird, or felt like the writing a novelist must do to learn more about his characters before actually writing the novel and setting them into the story. So, unless you're a Lethem Diehard, I'd think about skipping this one.

While trudging through Jonathem Lethem's novel, I also was reading another New York novel by another Jonathan (Dee) — this one titled A Thousand Pardons. Since I finished these two Jonathan novels within a day of each other, I thought it made sense to write about them together — especially given that I wasn't a huge fan of Dee's novel, either.

A Thousand Pardons is a slim, uneven novel about a failed marriage, a chance for redemption, and a drunken movie star who may or may not have killed a woman. Helen and Ben, ensconced in suburban New York City, with their pre-teen adopted daughter Sara, are in couples counseling. Ben is bored, and soon the marriage blows up in spectacular fashion when Ben invites a comely intern at his law firm to a hotel room for a sexy rendezvous, is beaten up there by her boyfriend, gets drunk, passes out, gets a DUI, loses his job, is sued for sexual assault, gets divorced, and goes to jail. It's a bad week.

Helen tries to pick up the pieces by moving with Sara to Manhattan, where she has discovered a talent for public relations — specifically getting jerks to apologize for jerky actions (a cheating councilman, eg.). Soon, Helen finds herself working for the top PR company in New York, and reconnects with a movie star named Hamilton Barth, with whom Helen had gone to grade school. Hamilton goes on a bender, and calls Helen for help, and the novel veers into a mystery — did he or didn't he kill a woman? He honestly can't remember!

This novel's a decent, light read, not to be taken too seriously. So much of this novel is so improbable, you can't help but snigger a bit at it. For instance, Helen, with no experience and not having worked for 12 years, is easily able to set up four interviews in Manhattan on the same day— including one for an editorial assistant at a Conde Nast magazine. Riiiiiiiiight. At another point, when Ben is jail, and trying to keep that a secret from his now-ex-wife and daughter, he wonders if his daughter will know that he's emailing her from a different IP address, and therefore will find out he's in jail. Um, okay? (Maybe that's nit-picky, but it just added to the avalanche of unreality in this novel.)

So, really, the best thing I can say about Dee's novel is that it was a good change of pace from Lethem's. But I don't think I'll be recommending either one.


  1. Disagree on Lethem. Writing so strong, he will win all the prizes.

    1. Writing strong, yes - but an inconsequential, dull story.