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Book at Bedtime: Dissident Gardens

Jonathan Lethem

American novelist

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Jonathan Lethem's Twentieth Century American epic, Dissident Gardens, is  Radio 4's Book at Bedtime  from 20 January at 10.45pm.

All of Lethem’s novels are heavily influenced by music. Here, he discusses four songs which have inspired his past books, and one which forecasts the next.

GIRL IN LANDSCAPE had a very disparate series of influences. Some it wore on its sleeve — the book was overtly an homage to two western films by director John Ford, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It was also quite openly connected to the "classic SF" version of the planet Mars, encountered in Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. Below that surface, it had a strong autobiographical element, and an almost subliminal connection to E.M. Forster's A Passage To India. But it also had a musical keynote, a song, a very strange song, with lyrics I can't claim to completely understand, but which always brought me back to the emotional center of the book: John Cale's "Dying On The Vine".

Though the song is something of a series of non-sequiturs, and certainly isn't told from the point of view of a teenage girl, as is the novel, it does contain images suggestive of a western landscape, and a strong evocation of loss, and of ghosts, and dead mothers. The book was the first where I put my emotional material ahead of a book's concept or plot, and playing the song every day helped keep me in that uncanny state.

THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE was directly concerned with race, and with its white protagonist's overwhelming, even irrational, sense of identification with black soul singers. It was also a book that depended on a kind of blatant confessional language — the story required giving things their full names rather than leaving them implicit. Syl Johnson's magisterial, anthemic, paranoia-tinged plaint, "Is It Because I'm Black?" helped define the tone I sought. One particular couplet from the song ("Like a child stealing candy his first time and done got caught/somewhere peeping around life's corners I got lost") seemed to conjoin adult regret to childhood yearning in exactly the manner I hoped the book would.

CHRONIC CITY was written less out of nostalgia than any of my other New York books. It wanted to snapshot the precise vertigo, frivolity, and despair of Manhattan in 2004, when we'd reelected George Bush and then decided to go back to partying on the brink of the void, poised between the two disasters of 9/11 and the financial collapse, but pretending not to know it. The novel was soundtracked for me by the band of the moment, LCD Soundsystem, and most directly by two tracks: "Yr City's A Sucker" and "New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down". Like the book I was trying to write, a top layer of lunacy rides over something dark and stirring.


DISSIDENT GARDENS is my Jewish-Communist book, but to the extent there's such a thing as Jewish-Communist music I'll admit I've avoided listening to it. Fortunately the atmosphere of the book was saturated in the folk scene of New York City in the late fifties and early sixties, where the music quite precisely charted the fading of the "Old Left" then gave way to the countercultural "New Left". Some of it was even, I suppose, Jewish and Communist — but my personal emblematic figure was Phil Ochs. Ochs, who tried to follow Dylan on the journey from the writing of literal protest songs to creating folk-rock panoramas, failed brilliantly, in examples like "Doesn't Lenny Live Here Anymore?" The elaborate portrait of losers and loss gains poignancy when considered in the light of Ochs' own tragic career.

My next writing is still mysterious to me. A series of images and characters have presented themselves, quite disparately; they seem to demand either a series of unrelated novellas or a very broad canvas indeed, perhaps the largest fictional construct I've ever tackled.

The situations I'm considering are sprawling not only across time, but geographically: for the first time I'm thinking seriously about setting parts of my fiction in other countries. And yet, for all this may sound in advance both vague and bloated, what's captured me is a certain feeling of extreme intimacy with these characters-who-haven't-been-written. I feel I can glimpse parts of their lives already, at moments of extreme vulnerability and wonder, and for what it's worth I associate this growing sensation with a record that's been an obsessive companion in the past few months, Mark Kozelek and Jimmy Lavalle's Perils From The Sea, where the singer and songwriter from Red House Painters makes an unexpected leap into gentle electronica. The songs are long, entrancing, both casual and poetic, and often abruptly revealing. I'd like to live up to the intimations they've been lending me.

Author pic copyright of John Lucas

Listen to Jonathan Lethem on Front Row

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