Forrest Wickman of Slate reports for NY1 on newly released book titles and the world of publishing in "The Book Reader."
Two great novelists take on the underground history of New York in new books this month.
Jonathan Lethem has already made the city his great subject in novels like "Motherless Brooklyn," "The Fortress of Solitude," and "Chronic City". For "Dissident Gardens", his latest out from Doubleday, he takes the people’s train over to Queens. There he stages a history of American communism that spans generations and most of the 20th century. It’s a grand task, but the book stays intimate. The story starts in the ’30s with the fierce matriarch Rose Zimmer. In the ’60s we meet her daughter Miriam, who escapes Rose’s iron fist over to the folkies of Greenwich Village. Finally, decades later, we catch up to Miriam’s son Sergius, who reconnects with his ancestors’ legacy when he stumbles upon Occupy Wall Street.
Each of these fellow travelers represents a different form of American leftism, though they would never admit what the novel shows: That their politics are as much a reaction to each other as to anything by Marx or Lenin.
Thomas Pynchon’s "Bleeding Edge", out this week from Penguin, is far wackier and more freewheeling than "Dissident Gardens", but it does stick to one time and place: Manhattan’s Silicon Alley in 2001, where its characters dial up to the dark corners of the World Wide Web. At heart, it’s a detective story. But, because it’s by Thomas Pynchon—the author of such zany, high-wire epics as Gravity’s Rainbow and the equally hardboiled Inherent Vice—it’s quite a bit more oddball than all that. He borrows elements from James Bond and screwball comedy; he takes on subjects like ’90s nostalgia and Bernie Madoff; and, because it takes place in the days leading up to September 11, you can’t help but wonder how much reality is going to come crashing in.
Both books are worth reading for any lit-loving New Yorker, but the more friendly and enjoyable is actually Pynchon’s. He may be more known for difficulty, but here he’s not writing about—as in "Gravity’s Rainbow"—rocket science. Instead, he’s cracking jokes about a time not long ago, that was much simpler, and the laughs come all the more readily, and poignantly, because of it.
Read a full review of "Bleeding Edge" and many other great new novels on the Slate Book Review at slate.com/books.