Monday, May 20, 2013

An Author a Day for Thirty Days: Day 20

I confess that I'm cheating a bit today since the book that inspired this post won't come out for another few months. Still, I just checked, and somehow we've never really spent any time talking about Jonathan Lethem. I think maybe Gianna accidentally boycotted Lethem when she wrote off Jonathan Franzen. That's okay. I'm here to clean up her messes.

I wouldn't characterize myself as the ultimate Jonathan Lethem fan because he's written a bunch of books that I haven't yet read. I have now read three of his books, though, and I liked all three. If you're new to J-Leth, as the cool kids call him (or I just made it up), start with Motherless Brooklyn. It's a great book group book, and it's quintessential Lethem in setting. The guy loves New York City. Also, Lethem loves to play with form, and this is his detective novel. And his protagonist, Lionel Essrog, is a Tourettic limo service driver who barks and cusses and (in Lethem's skilled hands) reworks the English language in wonderful ways. Lionel's boss Frank, a minor mobster, is killed, and Lionel's world is thrown into turmoil as other drivers and lowlife thugs jockey for position.

In Chronic City, Lethem takes Manhattan. Chase Insteadman is a former child star, minor celebrity, and hipster type, living off royalties and appearances on the Upper East Side dinner party circuit. People only ever ask Chase about A) his child star fame, and B) his fiancee, who is an astronaut stranded on the space station orbiting the earth. He meets a charismatic, drug-dealing, cool guy named Perkus Tooth, and together they partake of herbal treatments (the book is called Chronic City, after all) and search for authenticity in a world that is completely fake. It reminded me a bit of The Truman Show, and this book also has the most intense eBay auction ever captured in fiction. It also may be the only eBay auction ever captured in fiction.

That leads me to Dissident Gardens. This is Jonathan Lethem's new novel, which goes on sale in September. This is a big novel, and one that will show up on the year-end lists as one of the best books of the year. It reads like a major achievement. This is a family story centered around Rose Zimmer, a righteous busy body living in Sunnyside Gardens, a Queens neighborhood. Rose is a big ol' Commie. She's the Red Queen of Sunnyside, and she spends large amounts of time sharing her political views, worshiping Abraham Lincoln, and fighting with her daughter Miriam. Miriam comes of age in the radical sixties, marries an Irish folk singer, and has a son, Sergius, who's raised by Quakers. There are great comic moments in Dissident Gardens--one favorite passage involves Rose's nephew Lenin "Lenny" Angrush pitching a name for the new baseball team that will ultimately become the Mets, but his idea is the Proletariats--but this is also a serious book about family, broken ideals, and the dangers of philosophy interfering with emotional bonds.

I normally read a novel in a few days. With Dissident Gardens, I've been living in Jonathan Lethem's world for almost a month. As I've worked my through this book, I've come to love the characters and their passions. Their flaws. Lethem apparently based some of the book on his own Communist grandmother, and the personal connection shows in his writing. Add this book to your list of titles to look forward to in the fall.

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