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Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Cape, RRP£18.99 / Doubleday, RRP$27.95, 384 pages
Let us first dispel any false expectations about Jonathan Lethem’s superb ninth novel Dissident Gardens. it approaches its subject matter without those nerd accoutrements – comic books, superheroes, science fiction – so familiar to his readers. Also absent are characters as unlikely as Lionel Essrog, his Tourettes-afflicted detective in Motherless Brooklyn (1999).
That said, Lethem’s obsession with folk at the margins of society – misfits whose lives are a powerful commentary on the mainstream culture – remains in rude health. Dissident Gardens begins in 1950s Queens, with the members of a Jewish cell of the American Communist party, and ends in 2012 New England, where a scion of those Queens “commies” continues their tradition of scorched-earth politicised intellectualism.
Dissident Gardens can be placed squarely in the canon of the great American social novel. This is not to be confused with books written to strong-arm readers into a particular moral or political stance; nor is it akin to the dreaded protest novel, once lambasted by James Baldwin as “badly written and wildly improbable”. For our purposes, the American social novel is one that attempts to understand and describe some complex or difficult aspect of American life – F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Richard Wright’s Native Son, or more contemporary works such as Gish Jen’s Typical American (1991) or Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997).
In the opening scene we meet Rose Angrush Zimmer in 1955 at a living room tribunal convened to expel her from the Communist party for her affair with a black policeman. The scene ends with her shoving the tribunal leader’s hand underneath her blouse so that he, a former lover, might have a quick and bitter last feel of her considerable bosom.
Rose is a bruiser. She is always the smartest and loudest and toughest person in the room, on the block, or indeed perhaps in the entire borough of Queens. Lethem describes her strolling through the neighbourhood: “For Rose, to exit her kitchen and walk to Greenpoint Avenue was to set sail, beneath prophetic colors . . . ”
Around her revolves a large cast of characters. Of particular note are Rose’s hippie activist daughter, Miriam, and Cicero, the son of Rose’s married cop lover, whose boyhood education (and spare time) Rose commandeers even after her relationship with his father has ended. Rose and Miriam fight ferociously in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens in the 1950s, until Miriam decamps for more bohemian pastures in Greenwich Village.
The plot is more a constellation of events than a linear series of happenings. While this gives the book a slightly unwieldy quality, it also lends enormous energy and movement. A large part of the novel is spent in the offstage past, when Rose was a blushing young communist bride, married to a dandy German Jewish émigré. We then leap forward to 2012 (the novel is not strictly chronological but shuttles forward and back, as the story requires) to meet the excellently rendered Cicero, whose brilliance and anger is wasted on the undergraduates he teaches at a liberal arts college in New England, where he is the only black gay man for miles. Seeking Cicero’s benevolence and sagacity is a man-child named Sergius, who turns out to be Miriam’s son.
Which brings us to Miriam Gogan, née Zimmer. That her life and spirit pale in comparison to Rose’s is to be expected – whose wouldn’t? – but her character doesn’t quite come to life in the way it ought to. Miriam and Sergius are perhaps less effective, particularly when considered alongside such extraordinary creations as Rose and Cicero. As a result, the final quarter of the novel is a bit loose. It is as though Lethem had some trouble managing the consequences of the situations set out in the 1950s passages.
Dissident Gardens is about a lot of things, among them – and here we revisit the territory of Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) – racial and ethnic identity, class and how it kaleidoscopes in the neighbourhoods of New York. Rose’s identity as a communist and a Jew is inextricable from the European past. She understands Marxism as a way to get out from under, not only for herself but as “the sole prospect for the human species”.
The novel grudgingly admires Miriam’s hippie generation but at the same time it takes issue with it, and with the America of the latter half of the 20th century, for refusing to understand that the injustices of the past are still playing themselves out. Hard material to wrangle, especially as Rose’s charisma and political zeal wrestle the book to the ground and stand atop it, hammer and sickle waving. I was heartened to see her dominate these pages. Women like Rose aren’t often protagonists – they are absent, or they are punchlines.
Whatever its faults, I would be a fool to suggest Dissident Gardens was anything less than a standout novel. Rose alone is worth the price of the ticket, as is the quicksilver rat-tat-tat of the prose, and the pop and crackle of the dialogue. But mostly, it is worth reading for the questions it poses: how do we live inside of what-we-are-now with our varying interpretations (or ignorance) of what-we-used-to-be?
Ayana Mathis is author of ‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie’ (Windmill)