Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Jonathan Lethem’s “The Gray Goose” was originally published in the May 6, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Click for a larger image.

Betsy

“The Gray Goose,” by Jonathan Lethem, is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Dissident Gardens.  According to his interview with The New Yorker, Lethem’s novel stretches from the 1930s to the present day, telling the story of Rose and Miriam, a highly politicized mother-and-daughter pair from Queens.

In this excerpt, it is 1958, Miriam is seventeen, and she is not so much manning the barricades as she is “a Bolshevik of the five senses,” in love with the possibilities of her own power. For most of this excerpt, Miriam has a Columbia student named Porter in her thrall, getting him to leave the Greenwich Village Club where they had been listening to folk music.

The title, “The Gray Goose,” refers to the fact that Miriam is delighted that she alone seems to know that this particular folk song was made famous by a record Burl Ives made for children, a record she knew by heart, so to speak. She loves it that she alone knows the Gray Goose in the song stands for the “destiny of the middle class,” given that her mother, a former communist, had told her so. But the real purpose of this story is not so much politics as the delusionary paradoxes of politics, the revelatory scene being Rose’s adventure with Porter. Her goals are to “know more,” to feel “all the freedom accorded to nobody special as a power equal to the Empire State [Building’s] mass and force” and to lose her virginity, except that Porter says he cannot take her back to his Columbia dorm. So the gray goose may be just the song, or the middle class, or, in fact, Miriam.

On Miriam and Porter’s special, silly night, they make out in a “high-backed booth in the Cedar Tavern,” also at the Limelight coffee shop, also on a bench in Washington Square, and then finally in Rose’s own bedroom, with certain inevitable results, including the inevitable and funny confrontation with Miriam’s mother.

What interests me about this story is its own lack of interest in Miriam’s or Porter’s pleasure. Instead, although the narrative seems to be somewhat inside Miriam’s head, it has very little interest in her sexual awakening, but a heightened interest in what might be termed the politics of sex — seeing as that night Miriam feels very powerful, like “a leader of men,” in fact. It is as if Lethem is setting Miriam up: she thinks she is very political, but in fact, she is interested in how her sexuality is power.

Of course, what Lethem is really doing here is revealing the comic embarrassments that adolescence ensures. I feel confused, though, by the tone. Given that the whole novel will detail Rose and Miriam’s political adventures, this story takes a somewhat condescending view of Miriam. Miriam is recognized by fellow club goer as a “Red,” but the most political this evening gets up to is that Miriam can give the political antecedents of the Burl Ives song, and in order to get Porter to herself, she boasts that she can get them into a Norman Mailer party. Ah, confusion.

Actually, the confusion is also in the story-telling. Sentences like the following one combine several consciousnesses at once, several time periods, several settings, and more than one narrative attitude:

For instance, when Miriam said she was bored by jazz (worshipping at its longeurs, its brilliant “passages” induced the same claustrophobia she always felt sitting hushed through Rose’s Beethoven symphonies, being instructed in their remorseless dire profundities) and preferred Elvis Presley (cutting class to hide in Lorna Himmelfarb’s basement, listening to Presley having been the sole salvation in the final semester of her senior year at Sunnyside High), men like Porter went into paroxysm of delight at how the female could want to provoke them, never grasping the notion that anyone they’d ever be seen squiring, let alone this raven-haired Jewess with a vocabulary like Lionel Trilling’s could possibly possess such backward tastes.

All the bits are rich, but it’s a kind of tutti-frutti sentence, with its two parentheticals, its three musical styles, its notion of Elvis being the “sole” relief of senior year, its look into the interiors of two opposing consciousnesses and the suggestion of the interior of another, and its idea that Miriam displayed a vocabulary like Lionel Trilling’s — except that in this story, Miriam says nothing to Porter or the others that would support that. Basically, the sentence is hard to follow, and the story itself is a little off-putting in the same way. Does Lethem love Miriam, or is she his Becky Sharp? Is Miriam a sympathetic character engaged in a seventeen year old’s fool’s errand, or is she a fool who uses people, a “Bolshevik of the five senses” whose story will end badly? Possibly, in the novel all this is more coherently presented, and the reader, as I suspect, will be able to admire Miriam for her sense of self, while at the same time, being appalled at her self-delusions.

Another strange sentence that stopped me, actually, was one referring to Miriam’s first kiss with Porter. She is standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, she is being kissed by Porter, and at the same time she is “strategizing” how she can play this into something bigger:

Her whole body demanded revolution, her whole character screamed to see high towers raised and destroyed.

Combining a kiss with an obvious allusion to the two towers destroyed in 9/11 is jarring. Enough said. Perhaps it is meant to suggest just how politically deluded Miriam will turn out to be. The other obvious allusion is to a kind of sexual attitude I just cannot imagine a seventeen-year-old girl actually having — that she wants to witness male deflation. In fact, this bizarre thought is also a depiction of a very real desire that Miriam has to bring her towering mother down — to end the endless lectures, to stuff the “embittered moderation” and the “second generation cynicism toward collapsed gleaming visions of the future.” Whatever the meaning, I found the sentence odd but not alone; it is part of a two-paragraph riff regarding the Empire State Building Miriam has while kissing Porter, the gist of which is that Rose has taught Miriam that to be an American and to be a New Yorker is to be both proud and “nobody special.” People are wonderfully various, but Miriam appears to be unique.

In his interview, Lethem talks about the fact that the novel required quite a bit of research, so much that he hopes “never to do so much again.” The interviewer remarks that the novel is in some ways “an alternative history of the United States, one that takes place at the farthest reaches of the left.” In a way, I’m sorry that the editor didn’t choose a chapter having to do with Miriam and the Sandanistas. I know quite a bit about girls and their escapades with guys like Porter, but I know very little about the Sandanistas, and even less about the American women who were their camp followers. Such an excerpt might have made clear whether Lethem’s tone would remain arch and satirical, or whether Miriam would mature at all. Judging from the title, however (Dissident Gardens), the tone is likely to remain satirical.

Given the terrifying and incomprehensible civil war going on at present in Syria, given the multiple political positions within that country, given the various national positions being taken around the work, politics can obviously be a vast and important canvas. From this excerpt, however, we get the feeling that the novel will be about the foolishness of female radicals, or perhaps the foolishness of radicals. So I really don’t know what to think of either the story or the novel. But that may indicate more of a lack of funny bone in me, or, more specifically, a particular lack of satiric receptors in me on certain topics, than a lack in the writing. So I look forward to what other people have to say about this writer and about this story.

Trevor

I still haven’t read this one, Betsy. I’m not a Lethem fan, and I feel I may waste my time here. But . . . I have to know if I get more out of it :-) .

I look forward to others’ thoughts as well.

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By |2013-04-30T12:56:20-04:00April 29th, 2013|Categories: Jonathan Lethem, New Yorker Fiction|6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. sshaver April 30, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Is there a subtext about Burl Ives’ questionable politics?

    I’d rather be playing Woody Guthrie.

  2. Betsy May 1, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Trevor, I want to mention a very interesting interview that Jonathan Lethem had with The Paris Review in 2003 (The Art of Fiction, No. 177). This interview is as entertaining as a short story, as informative as an essay. It didn’t make me wish I had read it before I wrote my reaction to “The Gray Goose”, as I think it’s important to try to meet a writer on his or her own terms, and understand him or misunderstand given one’s own skills or shortcomings. Nevertheless, I recommend this interview as it clarifies to a wonderful extent what Lethem is all about as he talks extensively about his education and his influences. Like Munro, he doesn’t like to show his manuscripts to anyone, even his editor, until he is completely done. I, the immodest reader, understand that – it is as if he wants to sustain this exploration of what it is he is trying to say until he has said it all. Then, the conversation can begin. I also find it interesting that in 2003, he mentions several times the difficulty of writing about women. I felt that, reading about Miriam, even though I thought he might be using a particularly electric real woman as his model – albeit one he didn’t completely understand. Writing about women, however, may be an attempt to understand. At the same time, he talks about the digressiveness of his writing, that it is his necessary hallmark. In that way, Miriam in this story is a version of himself – given her wildly digressive thinking during her first kiss with Porter. Finally, I was fascinated with Lethem’s description in this interview of the way he sought out a method to educate himself. After all, we all leave school sometime, and we all (those of us who care) have to cobble together our own education ever after. Lethem has pursued a very effective life that enables his reading and writing, not an easy thing to do.

  3. Roger May 2, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    The trademark Lethem verbal pyrotechnics are on display here, but not to much end, for me. I’ve read Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, along with Lethem’s story collection, Men and Cartoons. I enjoyed all of them because Lethem put his talents in the service of interesting characters one could care about. I agree with Betsy that this reads like satire – satire per se, rather than a story with satirical aspects. The problem with satire in and of itself is that it has no heart, as TC Boyle has said. It simply holds something up to ridicule. Here, Miriam, Rose, Albert, Porter, the rest of Miriam’s crowd, and American radicalism are all held up to ridicule, without more. Even if greater dimension comes across in the novel, this is the piece the New Yorker has presented to us and therefore one would hope it would provide satisfaction in and of itself. I couldn’t get away from these characters fast enough, however, or from the author’s harsh treatment of them. On the plus side, we got to see the word “adamantine” twice in the same work, a first in my reading experience.

  4. Ken May 25, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I did not find this all that satirical or mean-spirited. Lethem does show the character’s foolishness but I think he also sympathizes with her and creates, in Miriam, a very sympathetic and fascinating character whom I will gladly read more about when the book is published. I think this is one of the better excertps in that it really piqued my interest in the work as a whole and it is pretty self-contained. Granted, there are too many back-story parts about the stereo and the mother and father’s marriage which might more effortlessly flow into the longer stream of a novel, but I stil found this nicely self-contained and a very evocative, sensuous and inviting glimpse into a lost cultural milieu and a liminal time of life for Miriam and the nation.

  5. John Reynolds May 30, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Burl Ives learned “The Gray Goose” from his friend Lead Belly.

  6. Bill F July 25, 2013 at 1:25 am

    I agree some sentences are overloaded and the excerpt itself felt cobbled together. On the other hand the period details and evocation were pleasing.
    Btw, I couldn’t find credit for or info on the wonderful photograph.

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