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.
“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.
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.