By Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 384 pages
Dissident Gardens is exhilarating, overwhelming, and a mess. Jonathan Lethem’s ninth novel is a sprawling meander through three generations of New York Communists and other left-wing radicals, and it ranges all over the metropolitan—and ideological, and religious, and racial—map. The book begins with a Communist Party ultimatum to the formidable Rose Zimmer, a fortysomething matriarch, to cease her sexual congress with a black cop. Rose is livid: “Here was Communist habit, Communist ritual: the living-room trial, the respectable lynch mob…lifting a butter knife to slather a piece of toast and using it in passing to sever you from that to which you’d given your life.”
The living room in question is in Rose’s apartment in Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, the “official Socialist Utopian village of the Outer Boroughs.” The year is 1955, “bare months before Khrushchev, at the Soviet Congress, aired fact of the Stalin purges.” But the real setting turns out to be inside Rose’s head, where the reader is plunged without warning. Rose’s furious interior monologue, equal parts political screed and litany of personal grievances, is as confusing as it is compelling. But this turns out to be true of the novel as well.
In bits and pieces, we get the story of Rose Angrush, a “zaftig Brooklyn shtetl girl” who married Albert Zimmer, an aristocratic German Jew. Both worked tirelessly in the service of the American Communist Party. But the marriage foundered; Albert was sent to Germany—to East Germany—leaving Rose and their young daughter, Miriam, behind. Miriam grows up to be a piece of work, easily her mother’s equal: in a farcically melodramatic mother-daughter argument, Rose shoves first her own, then Miriam’s, head into their apartment’s gas oven. (After a moment, both women crawl back out.) It’s a ludicrous scene, but it’s meant as an emblem: Miriam and Rose will forever be combatants and co-conspirators, “coiled in fury at each other yet still bulwarked together…against the prospect of anything and anyone else inside.”
But before we’ve even had a chance to absorb this, Lethem switches scenes: Suddenly, the reader is shunted from Rose and Miriam’s apartment to Maine, where a professor named Cicero Lookins (“Baginstock College’s miraculous triple token, gay, black, and overweight”) is talking to a guy named Sergius, who seems to be Miriam’s orphaned son. We read on in bewilderment—who is Cicero Lookins? What year is it? What happened to Rose? “She’s dead,” Sergius tells Cicero bluntly.
And just when we get the matter of Cicero’s identity straightened out—he’s the son of the black cop Rose was sleeping with, whom Rose took up as a kind of honorary stepson—we’re yanked away again, and plunked down inside the head of Lenin “Lenny” Angrush, an unappetizing weirdo obsessed with numismatics, chess, baseball, and his second cousin Miriam, for whom he’s pined in vain since the very day she was born.
The novel lurches unpredictably from era to era, heedlessly spoiling its own plot even as it withholds crucial bits of information that could help orient the reader. Each character gets a chapter or several told from his or her perspective, though the style (an endlessly digressive third-person) remains constant throughout. The more we learn, the more confused we become. Lethem’s prose is torrential; he drenches the reader in detail. Mundane occurrences are made to bear heavy symbolic weight: For instance, here is 13-year-old Cicero on the way to eat dim sum in the Village with Miriam. The walk reminds him of similar perambulations with Rose:
Mother and daughter each made a version of Carroll’s Red Queen, running to stay in place. Each marked urban spaces like a pinball bouncing under glass, trying to light every bumper before gravity drew them into the trap waiting below. Only Miriam’s rounds were animated by exultation, the outer-borough kid’s connoisseurship of a Greenwich Village culture that was her inheritance if she demanded it be. Rose, paranoia her precinct, stalked Sunnyside like it was a zoo’s cage. Rose kept score. Burned grudges for fuel.
Cicero was already a connoisseur, too, of styles of female power.
Nothing is too small or insignificant for Lethem to spin into a revelation, preferably a grandiose and overarching one that encompasses the whole world. But if everything is groovy and significant, it’s hard not to become jaded; we stagger under the weight of what Lethem refers to as “stoner palaver, that droning fascination with everything.”
And then, about a third of the way through Dissident Gardens, it all begins to work. When Miriam, now married and a mother, goes on a television quiz show called “The Who, What, or Where Game,” the novel’s style and action magically sync. For one thing, Miriam is high as a kite, which earns her the right to spout stoner palaver. She charmingly botches the game, in part because she’s distracted by the endless looping and circling of her pot-addled brain. But for the first time, the looping and circling are more interesting than the action itself. Who cares about the game show? We’re too busy accumulating fascinating details about Miriam and Lenny and Sergius and Cicero and Rose.
The spell holds. We’re able, now, to take the book’s temporal leaps backward and forward in stride. One minute we’re with Rose and Albert Zimmer at a utopian collective farm in New Jersey before Miriam’s conception. The next we’re wandering around Greenwich Village with Tommy Gogan, Miriam’s hippie Irish folksinger husband-to-be, the very night they fall in love. (“That Tommy could see the girl sought to topple and outrage him was no help. He was toppled and outraged….After this storm in which the sun had been blotted out, the clock destroyed, what should happen?”)
We see Cicero Lookins go down in flames while teaching a seminar titled “Disgust and Proximity,” though the point he’s trying to make fits perfectly with the themes of Dissident Gardens: “The problem with all utopian ideologies is that they pit themselves against the tyranny of the bourgeois family,” he says. “The deep fate of each human is to begin with their mother and father as the whole of reality and to have to forge a journey to break into the wider world.” We see Miriam and Tommy just before their murder in Nicaragua, and Lenny the day he gets shot, and Rose as she slides through dementia to death. And we see, or rather read, a stunning and heartbreaking exchange of letters between Miriam and Albert, the absent father with whom she tries to reconnect but ends up rejecting after all.
The palpable anguish of these letters is mimicked in the chapters narrated by Sergius, who spends his life adrift in the wake of his parents’ disappearance. Though the novel wears its darkness lightly (every section, no matter how grim, is leavened with sarcasm and wit), the sections in which children pine for their parents are the most moving and vivid. It would be reductive to say that Dissident Gardens is, deep down, a novel about familial alienation and affection; the book stubbornly resists classification, and to reduce it to a filial saga would give short shrift to its other themes. Dissident Gardens is about ideology and privately held beliefs, the personal and the political. Still, Lethem chooses to end with Sergius in his parentless solitude, “severed from the life of the planet…a cell of one, beating like a heart.” And it is Sergius’s story that ultimately resonates, fitting, perhaps, for a writer whose most famous novel is entitled Motherless Brooklyn.