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Novelist Jonathan Lethem offers look at the personal side of American radicalism

October 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Set in the mid-20th century, Jonathan Lethem's novel "Dissident Gardens" explores the private lives of American communists and the "radical tradition" that has become part of the fabric of our nation. Jeffrey Brown talks to the author about his inspiration and the intersection of political ideology and personal experience.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a personal and political story of three generations of American radicals.That’s the subject author Jonathan Lethem tackles in his new novel, Dissident Gardens.

Lethem, whose previous novels include Chronic City and The Fortress of Solitude, sat down recently with Jeff.

Here’s a portion of their conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It started, I gather, with you wanting to write about your own grandmother?

JONATHAN LETHEM, Dissident Gardens:Yes, absolutely.

The source for the book was contemplating all the kind of dark areas in my experience of my grandmother’s life, that I knew she’d had a gigantic political existence in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, and yet all of this was sort of sealed in silence by the time I came along.

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JEFFREY BROWN: You didn’t know any of it.And so you learn later?

JONATHAN LETHEM: Well, of course, I didn’t actually ever have access to her dossier, if such a thing exists.

(LAUGHTER)

JONATHAN LETHEM: I think maybe it does.

But I’m a novelist, so my license is to go and make it all up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so — OK, so how did it — how do you — how did it grow?

JONATHAN LETHEM: Well…

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, how did it become — and when did you know that it was this big story?

JONATHAN LETHEM: There are — I may not have my grandmother’s story, but the lives of radicals in the 20th century, it’s a giant part of the American story, a very — a very complicated, turbulent, sometimes tragic one.

But it involves areas of great triumph and accomplishment as well.And I had all sorts of places to go for that, memoirs, accounts, Irving Howe, Vivian Gornick.The memoirs by red diaper babies, basically, were my bread and butter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it’s a — – it’s a — it’s a small, almost kind of closed, somewhat paranoid group that you’re writing about, American communists and sympathizers.

We look back and, you know, part of it as I’m reading, it almost looks quaint, in a way.But, then, it was quite serious.I mean, they…

(CROSSTALK)

JONATHAN LETHEM: It was more than serious.It was — it was as, you know, strongly influential, I think, on the shape of pre-war American life as anything could be.

And one of the things that I concluded, I — this book isn’t a historiography.It’s really about the characters, but I realized these were very American choices to make, very typical, in their way, that we are a country made up of waves of different kinds of utopian ambition and aspiration, and that this was one of those.

JEFFREY BROWN: So your job as a novelist is to put flesh on the personal side of that?

JONATHAN LETHEM: That, for me, is always where the job is really centered, is, what was it like to live these lives, to feel my way in?Other people can do history.I’m not qualified.

And I’m not, really, in a way, inclined that way.I wanted to make you feel that these lives really existed and what it — what they consisted of.I think that it’s a job that invents itself over and over again.My job a way is to abide with — with my own curiosity, my own ignorance, and reach out into that space, as I did with my grandmother’s life and as I did here with the 1930s and the ’40s, places I haven’t been, can’t go back and visit, and just dream my way into other lives as well as I can.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dream your way into other lives.That’s it?

JONATHAN LETHEM: That’s it.