Friday, December 13, 2013
Lethem’s new book is in theory a sweeping story of a couple generations in a family and through them a history of the American left from the thirties on, maybe in the style of Doctorow’s Book of Daniel. One can imagine what that book would be like, filled with thrilling set pieces, historical cameos, and the word epic included somewhere on the jacket. Lethem delivers a book spikier, more interesting, and that is a little bit off putting and inaccessible. Bitterness, regret, miscommunications and lost connections, and tragedy couched in Lethem’s excellent grasp of history and pop culture and the ways memory and childhood create our worlds. His characters are so miserable and petrified by their pasts that without Lethem’s careful constructions and fiery prose this book would cross the line into a miserable wallow. He ruthlessly mines his late mother’s life for the character of Miriam and since he has already published that material in an essay it brings up the thought whether or not Lethem himself is paralyzed by his own past. This book might mark a transition in Lethem as it feels different and is constructed contrarily to anything else he has produced. He has created a kind of anti-epic eschewing the expansive for claustrophobic portraiture.