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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Gray Goose" by Jonathan Lethem

Each week I review the short fiction in the latest issue of The New Yorker. And they never seem to notice...
Issue: May 6th, 2013

Story: "The Gray Goose"

Author: Jonathan Lethem

Plot: First of all, if you're into contemporary American fiction and you don't know Jonathan better ask somebody. Quick. This is one of the giants of American letters right now and needs no further introduction from me than that, I think. 

Second, you need to know this is a chapter of Lethem's upcoming novel Dissident Gardens. The novel follows the lives of a young Jewish Communist and her daughter, from the 1930s through present day. The novel is set in New York, and so is the short story. In "Gray Goose," the daughter, Miriam, makes one of her first forays into "adult" culture and the world of sex, on a night in 1958. She goes to a Greenwich Village nightclub and finds a number of men vying for her attention. She discovers she has some power over them. Takes one of them back to her house and tries to lose her virginity but it doesn't work. However, the plot is secondary. This is a novel of ideas. The main idea being a young woman's quest to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood in an exciting, rapidly changing world while dealing with the baggage of a.) being raised by a Jewish mother, b.) being raised a Communist, c.) having daddy issues, and d.) being attractive to adult men before she herself is an adult. The story is more of a navigation through her memories and the cultural flotsam and jetsam of her young mind as it is an actual "story." But it works, because Lethem is an incredibly talented writer. 

Review: The story's eponymous "gray goose" comes from a Burl Ives song which Miriam listened to many times as a child, on a record album she was given when her father left the family. Her intimate knowledge of the song, and its symbolism involving the plight of the working man, comes in handy in the Greenwich Village nightclub she visits in the story. This enables her to gain the interest of a few young men who vie for her continued attention throughout the night. 

This is an interesting device, as it works to show how Miriam taps into elements of her past, her upbringing, in order to find herself in the adult world. In fact, throughout the story Miriam finds herself behaving like her mother, Rose, in ways she never thought she would. Perhaps her outspoken, pragmatic, Communist mother is not as uncool as she always thought? I'm sure this will be an ongoing theme in the book; Miriam's realization (as many of us realize) that she's more like her mother than she thought, and that her mother is not as full of shit as she thought.

Interesting also because novels by American Jews, especially those with strong ties to their ancestors,  almost always  deal with the problems of participating in modern day American culture in a meaningful way, while trying to unload the Old World shtetl values they've inherited from their forebears. What usually happens is, they realize they don't completely want to unload those values. It's something I can relate to, having grown up under the close tutelage of an Italian immigrant grandfather. I think this is why I've always had a soft spot for Jewish writers like Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Mordecai Richler, and even Michael Chabon. Something about this personal quest to harmonize the culture of ones ancestors with the contemporary culture in which one lives and wants to succeed resonates deeply within me. 

Frankly, there's too much going on here, even in this one chapter, for me to properly address it all. However, based on this snippet I can conclusively say that Dissident Gardens is going to be a richly woven and masterfully written novel. These kinds of novels, which rely mostly on ideas, are the most difficult to bring-off well. Which is why I write zombie novels at this point in my life; because it's easier to master a simpler form before moving into deeper waters. Writing deeply complex fiction like this takes the skills and persistence of a true professional. Lethem himself started out writing science fiction, but he's moved on to much more complex subject matter: namely the invisible but infinitely nuanced landscapes of cultural memory and human emotion. But rather than become boring and overly-laden, like many such books can be when they try to map that same territory, Lethem injects urgency, tension, expectation, and cultural heft into every paragraph. I absolutely cannot wait for this book. 


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