There goes the neighbourhood

6 months ago 78

What do you call the group just behind the avant-garde? The moyenne-garde? The juste-derrière l’avant-garde? Whatever the term is, Jonathan Lethem merits it. He is the most conventional of experimentalists. His approach to the contemporary American novel is to push the boat out, then rope it back in a bit. Nowhere is this more evident than in the structure of his latest novel, a bitty, divagatory and largely plotless account of a racially mixed group of kids living on and around Dean Street, in the area of north-western Brooklyn known as Boerum Hill. Lethem grew up on Dean Street and his most celebrated novels, Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and The Fortress of Solitude (2003), are not so much set in his home borough as drenched in it, true hymns to Manhattan’s grittier sibling from the era of American letters just before “whiteboy Brooklyn novelist”, in the words of the new novel’s narrator, “became such an unbearable thing”.

Brooklyn Crime Novel represents a return to home turf, not only because the six novels Lethem has published since The Fortress of Solitude have been set elsewhere – in California and (traitorously, for so ardent a Brooklynite) Greenwich Village and Queens – but because, by chopping up his narrative into 124 short episodes, he is both recapitulating and commenting on the fragmentary, semi-autobiographical nature of The Fortress of Solitude in particular. In that novel the story of Lethem’s authorial stand-in, the white, middle-class Dylan Ebdus, and his African American friend Mingus Rude emerges from a mass of little asides on growing up in “the band of streets laced between Park Slope and Cobble Hill” in the pre-gentrified 1970s. The new novel exerts a similarly cumulative force, mooching around the same neighbourhood in both space and time – most of the mini chapters are tagged by year, flitting back and forth over a period of more than six decades, albeit with a focus, again, on the 1970s – to drill the reader in Brooklyn street smarts such as “looping” (changing subway cars every stop to shake off unwelcome company), “mugging money” (to be carried in the pocket to divert from the dollars hidden in your sock) and, most importantly, “the dance”: the delicate, treacherous, racially charged dynamics of robbing and being robbed.

Where the new novel departs from its precursor is in its dispersal of the narrative burden. For all the importance of Mingus and the other main Black character – Dylan’s nemesis Robert Woolfolk – to Dylan’s psychological and moral development, The Fortress of Solitude is very much Dylan’s story, and thus, in its semi-autobiographical way, Lethem’s: an autobildungsroman. Brooklyn Crime Novel is choral by comparison. Many of its characters have their counterparts in the earlier novel – the conciliatory “C.” has his in Mingus, a character known as “the nemesis” has his in Woolfolk, a number of naive young white kids have theirs in Dylan – but none occupies the foreground for long before ceding it, a soft focus all the more pronounced for Lethem’s decision to leave his characters innominate, beyond sketchy descriptors such as “the millionaire’s son” or “the spoiled boy”, or, in the case of his secondary characters, nicknames such as “the Screamer” or “the Wheeze”.

The intended effect would seem to be panoptic, a sort of roving neighbourhood view in the Updike or Franzen manner. “Why don’t the white boys with the ruined coins have names?”, asks the narrator – whose identity is similarly indeterminate – of a couple of local kids who, for reasons that become apparent later, like to mutilate nickels and quarters. “They don’t need names”, is the answer. “In this inquiry, we’re taking a wider view.” Lethem has spoken of his wish not exactly to rebut or disavow Fortress, but to revisit the material in a manner that decentres the authorial consciousness, that steps back, as it were, to let Boerum Hill do the talking. “I’m one of the Dean Street boys, yes”, the narrator tells us. “But not one of those whose personal person needs center stage.” This is the omniscient narrator in the age of white male guilt, embarrassed by his omniscience to the point of self-cancellation. Among the many former “Dean Street boys” whose stories the narrator traces is “the novelist”, whom everyone hates, largely because the book he wrote about his childhood, here named “Take Me to the Bridge”, but unmistakably based on Fortress, “glazed it all in the amber of his self-pity”, collapsing “so many different white boys into the outline of one body”. Our new narrator is too much of a modern man to commit such colonialist appropriation. By design, at least, his is less a case of omniscience than narration by unmanned drone. No more “coming-of-age, poor-little-white-boy stuff”. This is the story of a community, not of a know-it-all novelist arrogating all its “glorious conundrums for himself”.

Likewise, although the crime of the title might refer to any or all of the countless petty larcenies described in the text – the novelist’s included – the main victim is not an individual, but the neighbourhood itself. The crime is gentrification. The young Black kid referred to as C., something of a mediator between his community and the offspring of the first wave of white gentrifiers, looks on in amazement as “a neighborhood of nonwhites, a neighborhood zoned for light industry – a neighborhood fated, in some plans, for demolition and clearance in favor of a throughway” is transformed by white settlers with “perpetual plaster-globs in the fine hairs” of their forearms into a heritage zone that exists “neither in the present nor the future, but in a cleaned-up dream of the past”. It is here that the novel’s non-linearity comes into its own. Alternating with agility between the late 1960s, the near-present and the years in between, Lethem gives a sharp sense of the poignancies of urban regeneration. Brownstones that the pioneering gentrifiers “purchased in 1967 for eighteen or twenty-one grand, then slowly refurbished … turned over during the first peak in the mid-aughts for a cool three or five million”. Was this guile or good luck? Our narrator finds it “hard not to understand them as a deliberate engine of displacement and pillage”. Whichever side you come down on, Lethem is excellent on the retrospective incredulity of contemporary antiquarianism:

Now, walk those storied streets. The trees they planted, and resolutely replanted, the trees they forged ironwork to protect, all grown tall. The brick they repointed … How could this have been anything but a sacred place? Abandoned, derelict, slated for demolition? Now you’re like, what could they have been thinking?

What began as an eccentric, patchily utopian if opportunistic conservation movement has become an exercise in American unreality. “The more imaginary an American thing”, the narrator reflects, “the deeper the ache to drape it in the bunting of provenances, lineage, Victorian frills.” Dean Street is now the stomping ground of movie stars and tech billionaires. Against this the novel offers its patchwork of recollections from a time before Boerum Hill became an impeccably repointed simulacrum of itself. These are often touching and funny, even if the narrator’s – and arguably the author’s – claims to self-effacement are, for the most part, sanctimonious hogwash. The problem here is in Lethem’s prose style. The narrator tells us he is not one of those Dean Street boys “whose personal person needs center stage”, but this is a sentence that undoes itself. That wiseacre-ish, gum-snapping sub-Runyonism of “personal person”: it would be hard to imagine a more attention-seeking means of forswearing attention. He just can’t help himself. Again and again Lethem capitulates to his own tendency to over-articulation, intense emphasis, compulsively detailed description that is often very good, but a long way from the sort of well-mannered authorial withdrawal the novel expends a good deal of energy claiming for itself.

Take this passage set in 1970, featuring a recent arrival to Boerum Hill, a white father of young children, sharing a joint with his landlord – the “muttonchops-wearing … hippie Victorian” with the plaster globs in his arm hair. Cheerfully stoned, the landlord suggests to his tenant that he is wasting his money on rent. Instead he offers to point him “to some material” – that is, an unrefurbished brownstone he’d be well advised to snap up before some other wannabe gentrifier does.

“I – we prefer to stay uhhhh modular.” Now the father is annoyed with himself, knowing he’s offered a term that is wrong for what he means and only doing so in the effort to keep up with the pretentious euphemistic use of the word material. “Anyway, it’s not like we’re sitting on a down payment.”

The tracking of the father’s stoned thought process is gratifyingly precise. It is also typically Lethemesque in that he is talking over his character, filling the nervy gap where he feels explanation may be necessary, doubling up on the adjectives, leaving nothing implicit. His prose is seasick with italics. He is constantly badgering the reader with metafictional speculations (“Anyone still reading at this point?”: a hostage to fortune if ever there was one). There is even a mini essay on the ridiculousness of the old writerly injunction to show, not tell (“Fuck that shit. If you don’t care to know what I think, skip the chapter”). So much for letting your old neighbourhood speak for itself. As a personal person, Jonathan Lethem’s narrator may not need centre stage, but in bowing out so decorously he seems to have stumbled into the cupboard where the drumkit is stored.

Nat Segnit’s most recent book is Retreat: The risks and rewards of stepping back from the world, 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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