Jonathan Lethem: “The Gray Goose” from TNY, 5/6/13

TNY Story Art - Weegee photo

TNY Story Art – Weegee photo

Precisely to the same degree that she’d been mothered in disappointment, in embittered moderation, in the stifling of unreasonable expectations, in second-generation cynicism toward collapsed gleaming visions of the future, the morose detachment of the suburbs, Miriam was in fact a Bolshevik of the five senses. Her whole body demanded revolution, her whole character screamed to see high towers raised up and destroyed. Every yearning Rose might ever have wished to dampen had been doubly instilled in her daughter. For all her quashing of utopias, Rose had merely been proving Miriam’s innate suspicion that life was elsewhere.

In a nutshell: If Tessa Hadley had grown up Jewish in Brooklyn, her Stella would’ve been Lethem’s Miriam.

Like the Hadley excerpts (and yes, this is an excerpt, backstory for the novel that isn’t here), I thought the parts were greater than their sum. I loved some individual scenes, and there’s prose and imagery to die for (like Rose’s early miscarriage: “… the pregnancy lapsed, in the privacy of night, leaking out of Rose in gobs and streams…”), but in the end, it’s another teenage rebellion story, with generational echoes of Rose’s backstory. As I understand it from Lethem’s Page-Turner interview, the novel follows Miriam to sites of revolution beyond Brooklyn. I can see how this section would be great background for that.

We start off with backstory (to the backstory) about the mom, Rose, who bonded with another Communist at a cell meeting, and, despite their differences (he the urbane German Jew vs. she the Polish Brooklyn variety) married him after she missed her third period. One miscarriage and four years later Miriam was born; shortly thereafter, Dad, more Communist that Jew and not Brooklyn at all, fled the family to return to Germany:

In 1948, the year Miriam’s father left, she was given an album. Last Sunday mornin’, Lord, Lord, Lord! Oh my daddy went ahuntin’, Lord, Lord, Lord. …The way her mother handled the album reminded Miriam of the Jewish ritual actions Rose despised… really any time Miriam had ever witnessed a Jew handling papers of importance or turning the pages of a book as if unworthy, grateful, ennobled, discreetly defiant, all at once. Rose opened her political books in this way.

The folksong “The Gray Goose,” sung by Burl Ives, plays a strong thematic role throughout this excerpt (I wonder if it persists through the entire novel). It’s interesting how we co-opt symbols. It seems “The Gray Goose” was originally a black southern folk song, recorded by Leadbelly, and had strong anti-slavery connotations: a footnote crediting John Greenway’s journal article “The Flight of the Gray Goose: Literary Symbolism in the Traditional Ballad” points out “the indestructible figure of the Gray Goose who though shot, picked, pickled, and boiled, etc., couldn’t be stopped. At the end of the folksong, the Gray Goose flies away from its tormenters and escapes to freedom.” And in case you don’t have your copy of Southern Folklore Quarterly #18 from 1954 lying around, my library is obtaining the article for me from UMaine in Orono, which shows you just what a public library can do just for the asking. It’ll take a few weeks, though (they’re in summer session and nobody’s home), so I’ll have to return to it at that time. Addendum: the article arrived faster than expected; details here.

Given Rose’s early enthusiasm for communism, it’s interesting she treats Burl Ives with such reverence, as he was one of those who “named names” to save his career. Then again, given the far greater betrayal of her husband’s abandonment of the family, it’s probably just a footnote to Rose’s conversion from ideologue to bitter cynic.

In any case, explaining the Bolshevik interpretation of “The Gray Goose” is Miriam’s way, ten years later in 1956, of establishing her communist roots to her date and her more desirable target, a Columbia student to whom she hopes to lose her virginity. The twists the tale takes along the way to this goal are pretty hilarious, but given the multisensory nature of Miriam’s rebellion, I was most interested by the subway scene in which she initiates the Columbia boy, already suffering from “boroughphobia – fear of Brooklyn” – to the best curve on the I. R. T.:

“It’s the only place in the system where you can watch the front cars of the train you’re on pull into a station from the rear cars,” Miriam said. Hammering the point home, she felt like Rose. Like she’d picked up Rose’s hammer of personality to impress the Columbia boy, to bonk against his broad, pretentiously daft forehead. (How could you go to so much trouble to arrive in New York City, as the throngs at Columbia and Barnard had, and not ride the system?) As if Miriam’s life-exuberance pointed back toward Rose’s punitive ferocity, just the way the I.R.T. screamed in the direction of home.

No matter where you go, there you are. It’s a nice way to keep the relationship between Rose and Miriam in the forefront, echoing Rose’s relationship with her husband as detailed in the first part of the excerpt. While Miriam’s attempt to be grown-up at 16 by going to a cozy Greenwich Village student hangout and losing her virginity, she’s got that same mix of boldness and fear that comes with all teenagers in varying degrees. She thinks of her Columbia man in terms of passing muster with Rose, then shakes off that thought as irrelevant: too late, we all saw the remaining apron string that, as hard as she tries to deny it, still remains her guideline, even if just to show her the path she wants to rebel against.

Maybe it isn’t Tessa Hadley at all; maybe it’s just the universality of teenager separation anxiety, the love/hate push-pull. Whatever it is, it’s probably, as I said, a great foundation for the novel. But no one ever told the realtor, “This is my dream house,” after just seeing the foundation.

One response to “Jonathan Lethem: “The Gray Goose” from TNY, 5/6/13

  1. Pingback: My Gray Goose Chase | A Just Recompense

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