Dissident Genres

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In Jonathan Lethem’s 2008 novel, Chronic City, characters with Pynchon-esque names (Oona Lazlow, Perkus Tooth, Chase Insteadman, etc) mention, among other topics within their hypno-erratic bouts of intense, marijuana fueled discussions, a book by recently deceased genius wunderkind “Ralph Warden Meeker,” titled Obstinate Dust. Lethem has had, throughout much of his work, a habit of leaving breadcrumbs leading to his inspirations, invitations to explore backwards, to reverse engineer, to somehow shove the light back through the prism and see what it looked like before.

Many of these “hints of self-consciousness,” as James Peacock points out, usually point to the often made “broad observation that Jonathan Lethem’s novels and short stories subvert established fictional genres in some way” (425, 427). Much of Lethem’s genre subversion comes from the move of mixing elements from unlike, and historically unrelated genres in a single novel, often utilizing parts from genres that contain “fantastic” elements and juxtaposing these with a more “consensual-reality” based narrative. His first novel, Gun With Occasional Music (1994) can be categorized as a mixture of hardboiled detective story with dystopian sci-fi. His third, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), in which a Scientist’s wife falls in love with his lab experiment, has been called equal parts academic novel, science fiction, and Don DeLillo spoof. “[T]his penchant for combination is no unmixed virtue,” argues Hal Parker in his review of Dissident Gardens (2013) for The American Reader. Parker feels that the mere project of trying to fulfill the requirements of multiple genres between the bindings of one book is one that is, despite some possible advantages (“it gives his books a certain verve”), slated for inevitable failure. For Parker, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003), an otherwise “nostalgic and insightful perspective on the genesis of the neighborhood of ‘Boerum Hill,” is burdened by the “silly and gratuitous intrusion” of the discovery of a magical ring that allows the young protagonist and his friend to fly. The neighborhood novel and magical realism get in each other’s way. “Indeed, the flight to full-on fantasy implicit in this move,” writes Parker, “lays bare an uncomfortable truth at the heart of Mr. Lethem’s genre-mixing—its function as an escape mechanism.”

By providing direct, textual references to his source material, Lethem is acting in a way that he, and many others, argue is perfectly contemporary. In his cut and paste essay for Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Lethem writes (or plagiarizes) that T.S. “Eliot evidenced no small anxiety about” borrowing lines and making allusions. “[T]he notes he so carefully added to The Waste Land can be read as a symptom of modernism’s contamination anxiety. Taken from this angle, what exactly is postmodernism, except modernism without the anxiety?” (61-62). That’s all well and good, but Lethem perhaps underestimates the capacity for critics to feel anxiety on his behalf. Parker argues that Lethem’s “omnivorous ambition” of combining genres “threatens to overwhelm his books with gratuitous or inadequately developed material.” The anxiety of having a mid-career, top-tier novelist overreaching can be unbearable, leading to the threat that in the end, Lethem, though “[c]easelessly creative, […] creates nothing. Unfailingly comprehensive, he captures nothing” (Parker).

Lethem for one isn’t ultimately interested in obfuscating what he’s doing with genre and influence, and that’s certainly the case in Dissident Gardens (2013). Early in the book, Lethem positions Albert’s childhood home as “next door to none other than the family home of Lübeck’s great scion Thomas Mann, the Buddenbrooks house” and name-drops Lionel Trilling several times (in the context of a Columbia college student who can imagine no better example to compare Miriam’s impressive vocabulary to, and is “proud anytime he could cite that name”) (Gardens 8, 30). Parker says that these two self-conscious clues point to two of the three genres that Lethem is sampling from in the novel; Buddenbrooks signaling its being “a multi-generational family novel,” and the multiple Trilling references to its status as “a political novel” (Parker). Its third genre, according to Parker, is that “[i]t is a neighborhood novel,” as much about Sunnyside, Queens as The Fortress of Solitude is about Boerum Hill in Brooklyn.

But what are the “requirements” of a genre, and what is it about mixing genres that can lead to muddlement and failure? Parker’s worries are founded on a notional concept of genre that Rick Altman, following the lead of Jameson, Todorov, and other French semioticians, have termed as “syntactic,” which they distinguish from a “semantic,” or even further afield, an “ideological” conception of genre (this latter being perhaps the most useful way of looking at genre in the case of a subversive such as Lethem, as we shall see later) (10). A semantic approach identifies a novel’s genre by stressing the “building blocks” from which it is created, the semantic units of the genre (Altman 10). Altman gives an example of this distinction through a discussion of the western. One might identify a western film semantically as simply as saying it is a film that takes place in the American West between 1840 and 1900 (10). A more detailed semantic checklist, such as the one formulated by Marc Vernet, might include considerations of the Western’s “emphasis on basic elements such as earth, dust, water, and leather,” and the genre’s stock characters that include “the tough/soft cowboy, the lonely sheriff, the faithful or treacherous Indian, and the strong but tender woman” (qtd. in Altman 10). It’s true that one would be hard-pressed to make a genre identification without some discussion of common elements, but for some critics the essence of genre lies not in what pieces are present, but in how they are arranged in the work’s syntax and how this arrangement creates meaning. Moving back to Altman’s example of the western, a syntactical classification would isolate not the genre’s “vocabulary […] but the relationships linking lexical elements.” In the syntactical view offered by Jim Kitses, “the western grows out of a dialectic between the West as Garden and as Desert (between culture and nature, community and individual, future and past)” (Altman 11).

The western’s vocabulary is thus generated by this syntactic relationship, and not vice-versa. John Cawelti attempts to systematize the western in a similar fashion: the western is always set on or near a frontier, where man encounters his uncivilized double. The western thus takes place on the border between two lands, between two eras, and with a hero who remains divided between two value systems (for he combines the town’s morals with the outlaws’ skills) (Altman 11).

Unlike Vernet’s semantic approach, we can see how Kitses and Cawelti incorporate a pre-built reading into their schemes, which grants their classifications with greater “explanatory power” (Altman 11). However, this approach creates its own problems. For one, it has the tendency of losing “broad applicability” to a large number of works, tending instead to select its examples carefully to create the impression of coherence to the syntactic scheme (11).

Which brings us to Parker. Generally, one can safely define genres as “essentially contracts between a writer and his readers[,]” and when the contract is perceived as unfulfilled, backlash can ensue (Jameson 135). For Parker, Lethem fails to “consummate the mixed genres to which he so consistently resorts,” creating an “escape mechanism” from adequately reconciling with any one of their syntactically inherent “meaning-bearing structures” (Parker; Altman 11). Indeed, Parker’s words ( Lethem fails to “endow [the mixed genres] with unity, purpose, or a deep meaning”) directly correspond with Altman’s description of the syntactic genre approach. “Spectator response,” Altman asserts, “is heavily conditioned by the choice of semantic elements” in a given work (Altman 16). In the case of Dissident Gardens, Lethem, by including the references to Trilling and focusing on the “cultural situation” of characters whose lives are devoted to radical politics, gives a “semantic signal” which sets up a “syntactic expectation” for readers that his book will be a political novel (Altman 17). Trilling, in his own right, was a large proponent of the connection between literature and politics, and wrote extensively on the matter. The semantic signals present in Gardens, perhaps justifiably, give Parker reason to expect a syntactically fully formed member of the genre as prescribed by Trilling. He writes that though Dissident Gardens seems “ripe for assimilation to Trilling’s template,” considering its subject matter, the novel “suffers from a crucial defect: the absence of any real or compelling political ideas” (Parker).

Parker is right: the ideologies and milieus in which the characters of Dissident Gardens live and breathe only are only revealed through the thoughts and conversations of the utterly convinced. When Rose and Albert run into each other for the first time infiltrating the same low-stakes political meeting on behalf of the communist party, we see the “meeting of two intellects gleaming with the same exalted certainties, two wills emboldened by the same great cause” (Gardens 12). We see two people whose actualization is not self-identified as even being “political” in the first place, because the word is “too limited a term, insufficient to describe what joining the greatest movement of human history had done for their sense of what life itself was for” (12). There is no room for moments that catch a character going over their political ideas, carefully explaining rationales, evidence, practicalities of application. Instead, Lethem is interested in describing “what happens when inchoate political feeling or utopian yearning are taken and made into a kind of concept, and people begin living their lives according to that concept” (Interview, PBS NewsHour). He’s portraying a purely ideological existence, replete with faults and blindspots.

But is this portrayal of political ideas really so incompatible with Trilling’s template? While Trilling is principally known for his work in short essays of literary criticism, he also (going unacknowledged by Parker) put his ideas into practice by writing a novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), which is, like Dissident Gardens, about American communists. Again we see Lethem pointing to his sources, but it is Trilling’s account of how novels can support liberalism in society, his better known work, that Parker uses to take Lethem to task. For Trilling, Liberalism is easily separable from communism, as it “represents an attitude or a set of values” more so than a specific platform or dogma, values such as “tolerance, diversity, rationality, critical thought, and a concern for individual happiness and development” (Hersch 94). The role of the arts then, and novels in particular, is to correct liberalism’s problems, its tendency to move towards becoming ideological in its “weak or wrong expressions of itself[,]” such as communism (qtd. in Hersch 95). According to Trilling, an effective political novel “is involved with ideas,” and its effectiveness “surely derives from it commerce […] with systematic ideas” (qtd. in Hersch 95). But ideas are not enough. “If they were, political tracts and essays would” render the arts “unnecessary as vehicles for political education” (Hersch 95). Novels can help “to fight the sway of ideology,” then, not by espousing and arguing for a specific political view or position (such as the propagandistic, ideological novels from the 1930’s), but by instead challenging readers, forcing them to think critically and question their assumptions. This is accomplished through what Trilling saw as the novel’s greatest power; the induction of experience and emotional reaction in the reader. “The morally complex situations presented in novels” are unique in that they have the power to change sentiment and demand self-reflection, which for Trilling was essential in populating society with good, liberal citizens (Hersch 95).

So, then we see that the political novel, as a genre described by Trilling, sets up its own syntactical expectation: an arrangement of elements (ideas paired with emotions and “moral realism”) that fight against ideology (qtd. in Parker and Hersch 95). But fighting ideology can be accomplished in many ways, one of which is the subversion of ideological instruments, among which genre can be counted. It is precisely through this mode of generic dissidence out of which Lethem has made a career, and earned Hal Parker’s dissent. “If Lethem’s work illustrates anything,” James Peacock says, “it is that human life is not readily amenable to the imposition of generic boundaries” (430). The ideological approach to genre, as alluded to earlier, now comes into play. It asserts that “each individual genre” represents “a specific type of lie, an untruth whose most characteristic feature is its ability to masquerade as truth” (Altman 9). Genre, in this view, “functions as a kind of shared cognitive map for protagonist and reader,” the historical conventions propelling both parties headlong towards some predetermined and expected outcome (Peacock 439). Take for instance the romantic comedy film: we need only identify the protagonist and which of her potential suitors is most “unconventional” (for example the tousle-haired wood worker arriving unexpectedly into the life of New York advertising executive) to determine who she will “end up with.” The lie here can possibly be located in the genre’s choice of narrative focus, that romantic relationships are the central component of the human experience, or alternatively, the mythos of opposites attracting.

There is also the problem, in Parker’s usage of Trilling against Lethem, of the ahistoricity of his claim. In order to accept his argument at face value, we would need to accept that (1) it is not enough to merely sample from Trilling (his writing about American communists, the focus on ideology) without utilizing the full syntactical conceit of a Trilling “political novel” (elucidation of political ideas arranged with emotional depth to produce and kind of manipulative self-reflection) and (2), the concept of the political novel has not, will not, and should not “grow” (or if that word is too evaluative, “evolve”). Genres are, as Rick Altman incredulously said of contemporary criticism, often “treated as if they spring full-blown from the head of Zeus” (Altman 8). Peacock, quoting Altman’s book Film/Genre, goes further, asserting that the “common assumption that ‘genres have clear, stable identities and borders’ […] invariably masks ideological or political views,” and that “[t]he maintenance of clearly delineated genres helps shore up critical or disciplinary positions” (426).

It is convenient, and perhaps foolish, to adopt an old model of a genre (Trilling’s political novel, for instance) and hold new entries to this standard, and further, it is “not just a question here of deciding to what genre a given work belongs, but also and above all determining what it means to assert that a work ‘belongs’ to such a classification in the first place” (Jameson 151). Dissident Gardens can only be a “failure qua political novel” if we intend that it is indeed a political novel (Parker). I believe the move to classify Gardens as a political novel is a mistake if we disallow the novel’s syntactic drift from that mold, holding it steady to our expectations derived from its semantic signals. We must have the ability “to account for” works “that innovate by combining the syntax of one genre with the semantics of another” (Altman 12). It is in this way that new genres come into being, old ones evolve, and it is the path on which we can move towards understanding the work in question as both “a concrete verbal composition” and a “constellation” of “ideal relationships” between “the system of genres under whose configuration the individual work itself comes into being” (Jameson 153; 152).

Lethem’s novels–and Gardens is (although a trickier example) no exception–already have a consistent, overarching syntax into which the semantic elements from other genres are incorporated: the real world, replete with human life and emotion, distorted by fantastical occurrences or powers. The space where narrative emerges, and the structure by which meaning is created, is located in this interaction between people living in consensual-reality and the unreal. Along with the examples listed early in this essay, Dissident Gardens, can be incorporated into this narrative syntax if one considers that, as Lethem says, “there is, in a way, a fantastic element in this story, too. The fantasy is ideology” (PBS New Hour). The characters in Gardens, like Lethem’s description of his parents (one of his stated inspirations for writing the novel) in an interview with Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library, project “a very powerful image of a possible world, an idealistic notion” that can be understood as “a countercultural myth.” Rose, Miriam, Albert, Lenny; all them truly believe that they are at “the center of the American story,” their struggles represent the quintessential movements of history in action, but in reality, their efforts are “shrunken down to a very small margin in the story of American Culture” (Interview, New York Public Library).

Cicero Lookins, the gay, black, overweight professor at a New England liberal arts college, represents the only surviving intellectual heir of the political matriarch of the novel. He is the product of Rose’s incursion into his father’s life, her intellectual adoption of he, her lover’s child. Cicero had been born with a “debunking engine […] in place of a brain,” this, paired with Rose’s inculcating extra-curricular attention (reading lists, field trips to visit striking workers), and his growth outside of her influence, created an urge in Cicero to “unmake, to decry and destroy” the “veil of sustaining fiction that drove the world, what people needed to believe”: ideology (Gardens 65).

In a disastrous day in one of Cicero’s courses, he tries to ignite class discussion with an idea from a character in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, who says that “the problem with all utopian ideologies is they pit themselves against the tyranny of the bourgeois family, and that it’s basically hopeless” (201). The “tyranny of the bourgeois family” might better be described as “the usual topic of a multi-generational family novel” or, more simply, “what it’s like to grow up as a vanilla American,” or, in the case of Gardens, everyone around but the protagonists of the book. In a letter to his now-adult daughter Miriam, Albert writes that “[e]ach of us working in the U.S. Party felt the sway of a seductive individualism, one not so far from a kind of drug or sickness–or perhaps, a messianic religious fervor” (226).

So the point of meaning, it would seem, comes from the interfacing of a pervasive, native cultural ideology with–in the case of communism–an imported one, one that values “party” over anything else. The story of the “bourgeois family” of both Mann’s Buddenbrooks and the nation at large intrude and clash with “countercultural myth” that informs the characters’ of the novel’s ideology, creating the special circumstances in which the characters navigate. Near the end of her life, in a run-down nursing home off the BQE, Rose, in one of her brief moments of clarity, still tries to come to terms with the fact that the revolution never came:

“This, Albert, is the reason we never had a revolution in America!” She’d called him [Cicero] Albert by now a dozen times, Archie too, none of it seeming any longer anything too personal. He was contented to be the man in Rose’s life, her Big Other.

“How so?”

“Capitalism wouldn’t get out of the way. We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t begin to exist. It filled all available space.”

“The God That Refused to Fail?”


“You did okay, though, Rose. You existed for a while. It’s in the record books” (348).


Works Cited

Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Cinema Journal 23.3 (1984): 6- 18. JSTOR. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.

Hersch, Charles B. “Liberalism, the Novel, & the Self: Lionel Trilling on the Political Functions of Literature.” Polity 24.1 (1991): 91-106. JSTOR. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

Jameson, Frederic. “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre.” New Literary History 7.1, Critical Challenges: The Bellagio Symposium (1975): 135-63. JSTOR. Web. 01 May 2014.

Lethem, Jonathan. Chronic City. New York: Doubleday, 2009. Print.

—. Dissident Gardens. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 2013. Print.

—. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” Harper’s Magazine. 1 Feb. 2007: 59-71. Print.

—. Interview by Paul Holdengräber. “Jonathan Lethem: Farewell to Brooklyn.” New York Public Library. 22 Sep. 2010. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

—. Interview by Jeffrey Brown. “Jonathan Lethem on American Communism in Dissident Gardens.’” PBS News Hour. 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Parker, Hal. “Review: Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Dissident Gardens.’” The American Reader. Nov. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

Peacock, James. “Jonathan Lethem’s Genre Evolutions.” Journal of American Studies 43.3 (2009): 425-40. JSTOR. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.