Whether you are old enough to remember the Red Scare of Joseph McCarthy-era America or your memory doesn’t extend beyond the collapse of the Soviet “Evil Empire” in 1991, you recall a time when being a Communist in the United States wasn’t exactly the route to popularity. Today, anyone who adheres to that party line is more likely to be dismissed as irrelevant, not reviled. In DISSIDENT GARDENS, his frequently engaging, if not wholly satisfying, 10th novel, Jonathan Lethem leads us on a discursive journey through the last 60 years of the American left, when the ideological battle between East and West actually meant something.
The location that inspires the novel’s title is a Queens apartment complex, “the official Socialist Utopian Village of the outerboroughs,” known as Sunnyside Gardens. When the novel opens, in 1955, Rose Angrush Zimmer, recording secretary of her Communist Party cell, is in the midst of expulsion from the party because of her affair with a black police officer. But Rose is no typical Marxist ideologue. As committed as she is to the class struggle, she’s also an unapologetic admirer of Abraham Lincoln, even going so far as to erect a small shrine to the 16th president in her kitchen. Her most distinctive personality trait is her seething anger, an emotion that flows from what, for her, is a stunted life: “Rose, paranoia her precinct, stalked Sunnyside like it was a zoo’s cage. Rose kept score. Burned grudges for fuel.”
"Despite its failure to cohere into a fully satisfying whole, it offers a colorful and memorable mother-daughter conflict, well-constructed set pieces, and generous helpings of Jonathan Lethem’s high-wire prose, all of which combine to make it a worthwhile, if flawed, entertainment."
Much of Rose’s rage is channeled toward her daughter, Miriam, a “raven-haired Jewess with a vocabulary like Lionel Trilling.” Miriam marries the Irish folksinger Tommy Gogan, and their relationship allows Lethem to trace the progress of American-style radicalism from the antiwar movement of the 1960s, to life in an Alphabet City commune to the Nicaraguan civil war all the way through (in the person of their son, Sergius) to the Occupy movement in 2011. Like her mother, Miriam’s leftist politics are marked more by idealism than ideological rigidity.
Rose and Miriam are the dominant characters of the novel, most of whose energy derives from the sparks struck by their generational conflict. From the beginning, the relationship between mother and daughter is tension-filled, best illustrated in the riotously funny Philip Rothian scene that plays out when Rose, discovering Miriam having sex for the first time in their apartment, “flipped the gas dial, then wrenched the oven’s door open like a black mouth and crawled onto its pouting lip to deliver her head inside,” a short time later briefly substituting her daughter’s head for her own.
It’s too bad all but one of their male counterparts --- who include, in addition to Tommy and Sergius, Rose’s cousin Lenny Angrush, a chess wizard and coin collector whose dreams of an “urban socialistic baseball league” are crushed by the arrival of the New York Mets in 1962 --- never escape the shadow of these powerful women. The sole exception is Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s police officer lover and a massive, gay college professor who “like Rose in the end preferred his listeners stunned and bleeding, all masks on the floor, or on fire.”
The novel is an elegy of sorts for what once passed for the radical left in the United States. In a 2003 Paris Review interview, Lethem, the son of passionate Vietnam War protestors, confessed, “The first third of my life was spent at political demonstrations, shouting my lungs hoarse.” He can’t be faulted for a certain amount of nostalgia for those days, and regardless of one’s political sympathies, it’s hard not to summon up sympathy for the frustrated idealism of Rose and her cohort. An elderly Rose, living out her final days in a facility “soaked in BQE exhaust fumes,” offers this eulogy for the left’s utopian dreams: “Capitalism wouldn’t get out of the way. We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t begin to exist. It filled all the available space.”
The whole of DISSIDENT GARDENS, sorry to say, is less than the sum of its parts. In prose that’s layered and lush, Lethem consistently displays his remarkably observant eye for detail. Whether he’s describing Miriam and a teenage Cicero on a trip through Greenwich Village on a frigid December day, an afternoon Rose spends with her husband at the Homesteads, a communal settlement in New Jersey, or Miriam’s labyrinthine internal monologue during her appearance on an NBC quiz show, all these scenes are vivid and immediate. When one ends and the next begins, unfortunately, Lethem seems content to turn his attention to another one of his characters without sufficient concern for the novel’s forward movement.
It’s for that reason that DISSIDENT GARDENS feels more like a novel of the head than the heart. Despite its failure to cohere into a fully satisfying whole, it offers a colorful and memorable mother-daughter conflict, well-constructed set pieces, and generous helpings of Jonathan Lethem’s high-wire prose, all of which combine to make it a worthwhile, if flawed, entertainment.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 20, 2013