Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gardens of lies

Since I first saw mention of it I've understood that Jonathan Lethem's new novel Dissident Gardens isn't for me. It's yet another entry in the endless procession of anticommunist novels written by this country's petit-bourgeois-liberal literary darlings, published and promoted by the big multinational corporate monopolies that control U.S. literature. Specifically it is one of the also apparently endless stream of madness-of-the-60s novels, in this case with a multigenerational twist as the earlier generation, the 60s generation's parents, are themselves communists in this version. Communists with a big C, Communist Party members, that is. So what's not to like? Well, obviously—and really I could have just assumed this, taken it on faith, but the reviews do make it clear—Dissident Gardens is not to like, is to loathe in fact, because its 40s-50s Communists and 60s-70s radicals are portrayed as, variously, misguided, duped, betrayed, hypocritical, demented, damaged and damaging. Well intended as their political activities may originally be, we're shown, goodhearted as they may start out, the outcome is inevitable: they'll be wrecked and they'll inflict much wreckage, especially on their children and families.

OK so what else is new? This is the official story. This is one way bourgeois consciousness is purveyed in U.S. culture, via fiction, which can be relied upon to show readers the awful errors of characters' ways when those ways lead toward working-class struggle.

However. Lethem's novel goes further than this. It commits an inexcusable slander against the Communist Party USA. I don't belong to the CP, I belong to a different party, nor do I have much respect for what's left of the CP, reduced as it is to a wan left adjunct of the Democratic Party. I do have much respect, however, for the admirable earlier history of the CP, especially as regards its work against racism. This is the Communist Party of W.E.B. Du Bois, of Paul Robeson, of Benjamin Davis, of Claudia Jones; the CP that led struggles against lynch law, that organized the defense of the Scottsboro defendants; the CP of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades where Black and white together went to Spain to fight the fascists; the CP that organized anti-eviction struggles in Harlem and the Lower East Side. Against this proud anti-racist history Lethem conjures up a vile, abhorrent fiction: one of the novel's main characters, a white woman, is expelled from the CP for having an affair with a Black police officer. And, just so we're clear, not because she's consorting with an armed enforcer for the capitalist state, no no no. Because her lover is Black. WTF?!? One of the few if not for many years the only organization in this country in which people of all nationalities worked and struggled together, in which yes there were many "interracial" couples, and Lethem thinks the reader will swallow such a smear against it?

Well yes he does and yes no doubt most will, since most people have no other information to counter this fiction. Further, Lethem's literary lie is helped along quite nicely by Yiyun Li's front-page review in the September 8 New York Times Book Review. Li has the unbelievable gall to write in her review that "had they been allowed, these Communists would not have hesitated to lynch their comrade for sleeping with a black man."

You see how it's done? A reviewer (in this case a staunch anti-communist whose own first novel was a full-on screed against the People's Republic of China given similar front-page treatment when it came out) is handed the front-page slot in the country's leading book review and gets to use it to spew utter nonsense. The Big Lie—just put the opposite of the truth out there and, don't worry, it'll fly! The fighters against racism portrayed as racists! The organizers against lynchings depicted as themselves a wannabe lynch mob! Not only were interracial relationships much more common in the CP than in U.S. society as a whole and much earlier, I actually found a record of the Party expelling someone for making a racist comment against a Black-white couple. Expelled for opposing it, not for doing it! But hoo-hah, what the hell, Lethem is getting his usual plaudits and Li gets in her usual digs against the struggle of the workers and oppressed, and the bourgie book people go along their merry mendacious moneymaking way tra-la.