Jonathan Lethem: On Summoning the Black Academic Queer in His Novel ‘Dissident Gardens’
Author: Frederick McKindra
October 4, 2014
“I’ll name Baldwin as my influence till the cows come home–I have–but people will not talk about my work in those terms.”
At the outset of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Dissident Gardens (Doubleday), we find Cicero Lookins inhabiting a pastoral so familiar these days it’ll sound like a read: aging, brilliant gay black intellectual at the margin of life at a white liberal arts college in New England, raging before classrooms of wealthy white kids who can barely understand him. There, armed with his theory and his expressive hairstyle, the character harangues both his audience for its privilege and himself for desiring their understanding and speaker’s fees. I implicate myself here, for sometimes harboring a similar fantasy, or at least for imagining such a destination as my fate.
A trope has emerged among straight writers creating gay characters in literary fiction–gay men marked by their physical beauty in fiction, which has grown tired: Julius Clarke from Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children, Ethan, from The Tourists by Jeff Hobbs, and Owen Dunne from Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. Each of these books has held my attention and sympathy. But the flattery found in their inclusion of gay characters and themes among a wider cast has spoiled.
Problem is, they all look alike. No really. All of them. All are drawn with exotic looks (olive-skinned, brunettes each),“exotic” to a white body at least. All of them are sexually rapacious, and trade that favor for professional success. And in at least two of those three, the characters’ exoticism possesses enough magic to seduce its way into the bed of men known heretofore as “hetero,” the most convenient route into a narrative built on broader, more “literary” concerns being that one sidle up to a straight, white man.
But in Cicero Lookins, Lethem treats his gay character less prettily, constructing an overweight, black academic queen. Lethem makes something altogether different, though just as real, from the familiar rage found in a body flung this far from the master narrative. Cicero seems reluctant even to be drawn so near to the rest of the novel’s cast, all of whom circulate the novel’s matriarch Rose. Drawn into Rose’s circle because of the intellect that alienates him, like her, from his immediate family, he grows to resent her influence in his life and is given both the acerbic tongue and time on the page to let readers have it. Here, Lethem acknowledges a rarely noted habitué of academic or literary spaces, that of a black gay mind exiled into this fitfully close proximity to whiteness.
In Cicero, gay readers discover the disfigured form of a personality wrought by colliding identities, a face or body that does not find easy accommodation among the summer homes on Fire Island. Lethem’s willingness to treat a gay life, and to do so this unkindly, this unflatteringly, provides a new model for the ever-growing list of straight literary writers exploring gay concerns. Given the coterie of writers Lethem lists as influences, a tradition of black, gay New York writers he’s rarely connected to by literary audiences, Cicero should come as less of a surprise. True to this tradition, Cicero’s fate reads like Lethem giving us fair warning.
This interview hopes to explore the origins of Lethem’s ability to conjure such a character as Cicero–drawing from his own marginal identity near queer communities of color in his native Brooklyn–the power of making gay bodies unflattering in fiction, and politics within the literary world that may have obscured his connections to Baldwin and Samuel Delany.
There’s a party scene near the end of the novel where Cicero contemplates casting off his responsibility to Rose, the novel’s matriarch and a surrogate mother to Cicero. He would rather stay at the party he’s attending in Boerum Hill, your hood, back in 1983, where gay men are gathered watching Diana Ross “coming out” in Central Park, a singular moment in gay history in this city. The party stands out because it is familiar terrain for you–Brooklyn, the 80s–but it’s a gay party, and that section of Brooklyn hasn’t been explored in fiction. I wondered if you’d begin by remembering that part of your community in Brooklyn at the time.
Lately, I’ve come to feel that a certain portion of my work simply consists of acts of witnessing: such and such happened, people lived a certain way; isn’t it astounding to consider? For a long time it would have made me self-conscious to acknowledge it, even to myself. It sounds presumptuous, but also like a distraction from the expressive work, the storytelling. More lately I’ve embraced it. Fortress of Solitude is where it starts, but that book only made a partial home for all the human stuff that impressed itself upon me, growing up where and when I did. In my scheme of poor-little-white-kid-feels-locked-out-of-black-and-Hispanic-Boerum-Hill, I alluded to some of the other vanished histories that were part of the transitional phase of that neighborhood – but only barely. Practically every kind of person made use of that neighborhood at that time, in fact. It formed a mongrel social tapestry, even if a very awkward one.
The word “gentrification” suggests a simple cartoon binary, with which I may be at least slightly complicit: first there were blacks and Hispanics, then there came white millionaires with their double-wide strollers. But lost along with so much else–the fig trees planted in the backyards by Italian immigrants, the haunting presence of Native-American skyscraper-builders, who had their own bar on the corner of 4th and Atlantic — is that Boerum Hill had a specific gay history. The antique shops on Atlantic predate the official gentrification. A number of gay men ran those shops. And in the immediate pre-AIDS era, the Stonewall Era, I guess it would be, Pacific Street, between Nevins and Hoyt, seemed to be a place where young, interesting gay men found a cheap place to live. No one would know it now. As a teenager, I kind of fell in with that scene. Working as an apprentice at Michael Seidenberg’s bookstore on Atlantic, I met a young black man named Rolando, who I sort of commemorate in Dissident Gardens. Rolando was a ballet dancer. He and I discussed books and went to the beach. We flirted, I guess, and though I wasn’t ready to experiment, I had an easy rapport with these gay men. I eventually worked at an upscale delicatessen on Atlantic, called The Food Basket, one of those premature flares of gentrification that can end up looking so comic, called The Food Basket. It was only about twenty years too early. The owner was gay, and so were all his staff. I was sort of like a token straight kid, their teenage mascot–and I learned all kinds of codes while doing so. When the boss wasn’t in the shop, we all called him “she,” that sort of thing. I was a chameleon in various ways, and this was one.
The gay life of New York, and of that neighborhood specifically, never struck me as a big deal. They were part of so much that I took for granted, growing up inside the countercultural metropolis–all that which I had to really work to understand, later, seemed so odd to others. And it never seemed striking that Pacific Street happened to have that vein running through it, until I realized later that that was inexplicable to people that in placid, upscale, heterosexual Boerum Hill, some of the track had been laid for the gentrification by a lot of gay folk.
That’s a very long preamble to saying: that party was real. I was there that day, watching Diana Ross on TV.
I love the idea of the cartoon of gentrification: you have lower class blacks and Latinos and then all of a sudden, here come the white millionaires. You were very conscious of that in creating Cicero, right?
But Cicero didn’t grow up in that neighborhood. He passes through that scene, but the social history of Boerum Hill can hardly strike him as interesting, or even be legible. The scene’s there for me: in a book about rootedness and dispossession, about belonging and unbelonging, I made that little glance perhaps just to give myself a certain sense of personal witnessing complicity.
At that party on Pacific Street that Cicero attends, and which I attended, and at which he feels like his mind is blown by what looks to him the ease of gay identification–an identification not necessarily available to him – that scene’s autobiographical. I’d been brought to that party by Rolando, and there were probably a very small number of other cats there I recognized from the Food Basket, customers and so forth. It was a block and a half from the house where I’d grown up, from my Fortress of Solitude story. And yet it was another world again. There I was, seventeen, on Pacific Street, and none of my friends knew I was there, my parents didn’t know I was there, in a space that had its own cultural rules that I was beginning to be able to play in. It was version of a radical freedom enacted invisibly-in-plain-sight, a version of what I needed so desperately to locate in order to sustain myself. That community was showing me what it would look like: a kind of flippancy about being dislocated, having no home. And therefore making a home wherever you landed. Not waiting to “belong.”
How do you see Cicero as a character, with his several different minority identities – what’s he for?
I think Cicero is the character in the book who is the most like me. And at the same time he’s the most like [the novel’s central character] Rose. Which is weird.
It’s a book of multiple main characters–Cicero’s one himself–but ultimately it’s also a gigantic attempt to crack the puzzle of Rose. It’s formed as a series of ways of framing and re-framing her crises–the problem of being Rose, this titanically idealistic and impossible and enraged Communist true believer, in the American 20th Century. Rose is like the Little Richard song–“I got what I wanted, but I lost what I had.” She makes a gigantic leap, a defiant leap, in order to exist in the first place. Constructing a secular identity, driven by idealism, and by a Marxist critique, requires she overthrow her father’s religion, her family’s life. Her intellect exiles her from all she was meant to be. She marries into the Communist Party. She declares her Jewish identity irrelevant. And then spends the rest of her life experiencing the price. Her leap being such an extraordinarily costly one.
Cicero’s journey isn’t so different. What his intellect requires him to become, what his sexuality requires he become, dictates an equally expensive leap. The price is dispossession; he’ll belong nowhere. He’ll achieve a lot, and his vantage is quite imperial. More so than Rose, his intellect vaults him into a kind of power. He becomes the formidable presence she can only idealize. But at the same kind of disastrous cost.
You told me before the release of Chronic City that you’d purposefully withheld physical description of the main character, Chase Insteadman. But Cicero in Dissident Gardens seems to demand a lot of physical description. Did this feel like a departure from your habits? Is it something that the character, being black and gay, demanded?
Great question. It almost suggests the difference in the deep thematics of the two books. Chronic City is about cultural amnesia, the loss of a rootedness in history, or in any collective, interdependent social matrix. Chase Insteadman is a gentle character in many ways, and gullible, but he’s nonetheless really skating on privileges, on the power of his rather automatic charisma–he doesn’t need describing, as the straight white male–he’s there to be taken for granted as powerful, crucial, and central. And he’s systematically irresponsible to his human affiliations, the world of kinship. Of course Chase’s bodilessness also describes a measure of his helplessness and passivity: he’s like a phantom. Whereas Dissident Gardens is a book about the opposite: it’s about remembrance, sorrow, about being helplessly enmeshed in history, in familial ties, in the systems of human dependence and vulnerability.
Characters like Cicero, and Rose too, are deeply embodied. They can’t escape it. The book concerns itself with their journey as bodies, as subjects–as a body that is a subject moving through history. They might wish to escape it, but they don’t have the avenues. They don’t have the invisibility, or the ethereality of the “white straight male.”
You do considerable work to present Cicero’s weight. Why?
I guess it was my way of turning things up to eleven. I typically exaggerate my characters’ dilemmas, the pressure of their social circumstances. In truth I might have been one of three or four white kids in a classroom otherwise ‘of color,’ but I made Dylan Ebdus [from “Fortress…”] the only one. Exaggerations heighten the drama. I’m not really a subtle writer, in the sense that I like to overwhelm the character to deepen their crises in any way I can. So Cicero’s weight says: “I am a problem entering the room. You cannot avoid me, and I cannot avoid myself.”
The Rose/Cicero connection is also interesting in that context, given that with Rose, in the oven scene, she’s just spilling out of her robe. There’s a lot of her body there in the scene to deal with.
I was demanding the reader confront these energies–of course I was demanding it of myself, first, and more importantly. One of the ways I guess I made them hard characters to get around is by literally filling space on the page that way. They’ll be visible, they’re just going to be really visible, thickly tangible.
And well that raises another question: Toni Morrison has raised the idea that black characters really only need to become visible as “black” when they’re positioned in books with interracial casts. I wonder, are there any historical antecedents of black characters that get to remain unembodied in novels with interracial casts, and could Cicero actually have been one of those characters? Or was it necessary that he be so present in making this book because of who he was?
Well, I think there’s a tension between these two different things. There’s no doubt that by my making Cicero so physically obtrusive–his hair is described like 15 different times right?–I’m trying to write through the problem of the excess presence of the “other,” that which burdens the character. I was also writing in a way to invert the scheme of Fortress of Solitude. When you ask whether black characters ever presented in terms of their invisibility, well, I think that in a way Mingus Rude is a kind of invisible character. He exists for 7/8ths of the book as a projection of Dylan’s wishfulness and yearning, and guilt. Then, at the very last second, he attains a voice. Only in the very last chapters do you learn of his journey as a subject: his desires, his ambivalence, the fact that he was seeing Dylan too. In Fortress, Mingus’s voice is like a last-chance operation. I wanted Cicero in Dissident Gardens to be up front. In a way, I made him the Proscenium Arch for the white characters in this book. They’re seen on his terms. In fact, I wanted Cicero to be the first character you met. As I wrote the book, he was introduced in the first scene. What’s now Chapter 3 was going to be Chapter 1. So, the reader would be inoculated by Cicero’s skepticism, his disappointment, and his contempt for the white characters. He more or less tells Rose’s grandson, “…you’re not intellectually capable of grasping the meaning of your grandmother because you lack the historical awareness. I’m the only bearer of this knowledge. And further, your grandmother’s intellectual journey was thwarted; I know more than she ever did. So, don’t even go there. The story isn’t worth telling.” That’s what he announces at the beginning of the book I wanted to subject all of the white, Jewish characters to the pressure of his skepticism at the start, precisely to keep him from playing the more traditional black role: an invisible, implicit conscience.
In Dissident Gardens I raise the question: what are the opportunities, and what are the costs, in being someone else’s magic pixie dream girl, or magical Negro, or token? What is it to be the Irish talisman, what is it to be someone’s raven-haired Jewess, a woman who magically enlivens the creative white male? What is it to be the authenticating black in academia? In driving at the issue, I’ll, of course, raise a reader’s discomfort at the risk that I’m succumbing to it. Who knows, maybe I do.
I’m trying to investigate the subject-position of the person who has let themselves occupy such an emblematic role, precisely because it is opportune and enriching, in part. Cicero’s like, “I am a charged presence, and I can gain a lot from that, I can work with it. But then I’m also going to end up stuck inside that game or that mask.”
What were the origins of Cicero? What were the first sounds of his voice, or had you always thought, ‘Oh I want to write a black, gay character’?”
Definitely not that last option, which suggests again a proposition from outside the book, whether obligatory or systematic. It would never occur to me to think that way. Everything arises on the terms of the material. But I think that I can say that, I got my first little suspicion that Cicero was going to help me think about the material I’d uncovered, vis-a-vis Rose, when I read Hilton Als’ The Women. The kind of the skepticism that paradoxically brought the women in Als’ book to life was intoxicating. He’d linger over the price they paid, the limitations in their experience, the places where they’d exhausted the means of their identity. And yet you’d feel the largeness of their appetite for reality, the size of their disappointments. Als’ form of witnessing seemed to abide with something that I wanted to think about.
Earlier, more formative in my writing life, there’s James Baldwin. Another Country was the book that licensed Fortress of Solitude. It encouraged me to believe I could make my New York City live in all its perplexities and all its disasters. I can make that book. Even if I’d never read anything else of Baldwin’s, and I’ve read quite a lot else, that book is a symbol for me. I connect Cicero to Baldwin, to Samuel Delany, to Hilton Als, as well as to some individuals I knew, or have known personally, who evoke some of the same intensity, critical power, and frequently also anger. I became interested immediately in the anger in the character.
Do you feel like people connect you to that cadre of writer? Your literature isn’t also perceived in a way that encourages those connections. The first thing that drew me to your work was Fortress of Solitude, so that’s interesting to me. That through-line seems to make perfect sense–Baldwin, Delany, Als, Lethem.
(Sigh) Let’s be clear–even if it makes us sound elitist–90 percent of the literary discourse, or what passes for literary discourse, wouldn’t care to make those identifications that transgress superficial limits. In that discourse I’m read in terms of my resemblance to other white straight males of my generation, even if we often have barely anything important in common. They simply won’t read a book like Dissident Garden in terms of my identification with the gay black character, or with a written tradition they’d see in terms of rigid identities that exclude my participation.
I’ll name Baldwin as my influence till the cows come home–I have–but people will not talk about my work in those terms. They might talk about it in terms of Philip Roth. It is what it is, I have no complaints. But this also goes with, let’s deal with it, versions of invisibility. There are a lot of people who’ve written about Dissident Gardens as if though there are no black characters in the book. Many people talk about Fortress of Solitude as though the only viewpoint is Dylan’s, as though the book hews to close-third viewpoint until it switches to his first person. That’s simply wrong. It’s a book of multiple viewpoints, and unruly omniscience. Mingus’s father, Barrett Rude Junior, remains my favorite character that I’ve ever written, and he’s done partly from the inside. But the book is discusses as if it’s entirely written from Dylan’s point of view, because they’ve equated me with him. And further – while I’m on my high horse in terms of the denial of politic content, the denial of racial matters, the denial of material people don’t want to deal with — people discuss that book as if it’s all about superheroes. It’s also book about prison. It’s as much a book about how we treated white cocaine culture versus black cocaine culture in the War on Drugs. But people somehow shift into areas where they feel more comfortable, even if to be dismissive: “Oh, that cloying book about how much a lonely white boy loves his comic books.” Well, okay. Needless to say I don’t demand that I be given any special credibility because I’ve know black people personally, or have tried to present black characters. I may well have failed in the attempt. But if you want to talk about what’s inside the books, what’s on the pages, let’s at least name it.
You give voice to Cicero’s sexual desire in a convincing way–Tom Seaver’s thighs, Lenny’s earthiness–pinpointing things that are both idiosyncratic and universal. How do you do that, happen upon deep stuff from a foreign sexual subjectivity? Is it an echo of Rolando, the voices in your head of gay men you’ve known, or something else?
Listen: This is the work. Becoming other than yourself. Which you mostly accomplish by locating the distaff corners of yourself and connecting them to other people. You write into your own perplexity, your own fascination, your own dream of an alternative self, employing inklings you’ve gathered. Hearing your question, I think of myself and my friend Maureen when we were fifteen or sixteen. She spoke of how men’s forearms made her feel. A terrifying and lucky glimpse of female desire, of its specificity. For her to feel a man was hot, she confided, she needed to see a vein running under the skin of the forearm. Of course then as a teenage boy you run to the mirror: “I don’t see my vein. Will women like me?” In that glimpse you gain a purchase on female desire and a glimpse of yourself as a body in someone else’s imagination. You use anything you can get. Sure, Rolando is in there, and moments of fascination and desire on my own part, and actual experimentation, however “undefinitive” of who I’d eventually become. Do I get off on the bodies of my sports heroes? Of course. That doesn’t seem that exotic. In my present life, those sensations might happen to be stray, almost non-sequitur. But in writing the material, I could easily say, “What if that was a rallying cry? what if finding Tom Seaver’s ass interesting was the moment of identity construction?” I try to land my ship on that planet. I guess it’s become a way of life for me to try, it’s my craft–to cultivate the minority position inside myself and project it as a whole self.
Did you discover anything new? What’s the measure of the distance between Cicero and yourself? What’s the thing that you discovered? Maybe it was something physical/erotic? Maybe it was something intellectual?
Well, while I’ll claim him as an autobiographical character, there would be something insane in my claiming the legacy of Cicero’s particular traumas. He’s fanciful, he’s made up of projections of the other, as well as myself. I’m a novelist, remember. I’m trying to dazzle you with a game of let’s pretend.
 Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude has recently been adapted into a musical, currently playing at the Public Theater.
Photo credit: Julie Jo Fehrle