"Dissident Gardens," Jonathan Lethem’s extraordinary new novel, transports readers into the world of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, "official Socialist Utopian Village of the outer boroughs." It’s 1955, and Rose, the stalwart, filterless and deeply appealing matriarch of the Zimmer family, has just been thrown out of the Communist Party for sleeping with Douglas Lookins, a black cop.
"Everyone thought it was an affair between Jew and black, but it wasn’t," Lethem writes. "It was between cop and Commie."
Readers familiar with Lethem’s work — he’s the author of nine previous novels, four story collections, one novella and five nonfiction books — will recognize the author’s trademark wit, vertiginous prose and complex, multifaceted depiction of New York City, which once again is given as much narrative attention as any of Lethem’s characters.
But here, in his newest book, Lethem expertly maintains that level of intimacy with setting even as his characters venture into places as far-flung as Cold War-era Germany, a New Jersey kibbutz homestead and the wilds of Sandinista-occupied Nicaragua.
As his characters wrestle with more than a half century of politics, again and again Lethem makes leftist arguments and insights feel so fresh it’s as if we’re reading them for the first time. Equally impressive is how seriously he takes these politics, never allowing the Zimmers to become punch lines to liberal jokes. Lethem is too humane a writer to treat his characters as anything less than fully realized human beings -- people we want to nurture one moment and strangle the next. In other words, he gets us to engage with "the progressive, the enlightened, the worldly Zimmers" in as nuanced a way as we would our own families.
The novel hopscotches through time and voice, with chapters narrated by different members of the fractured Zimmer clan over a span of 80 years. We meet Cicero Lookins, the bright, appealing son of Rose’s police officer boyfriend; Lenny Angrush, Rose’s shady, chess-hustling nephew; Tommy Gogan, her folk musician son-in-law; and her grandson, Sergius, who leads us into the Occupy movement of the present day.
Rose’s husband, Albert, who returns to his native Germany, is a standout character. An epistolary chapter he narrates, consisting of letters from Dresden to his and Rose’s daughter Miriam (these heartbreaking letters are confiscated by the Stasi), is among the novel’s finest.
But it’s Miriam, a "raven-haired Jewess with a vocabulary like Lionel Trilling," who steals the show. As we follow her into the world of mystical astrology in 1970s Greenwich Village, and from there into marriage and motherhood and beyond, she becomes increasingly mesmerizing: smart, tragic, funny, every bit as exacting and impulsive as her mother. Miriam’s a young woman, her mother aptly observes, who "danced in her own minefield."
"Dissident Gardens" is a lush and epic story, meandering but never baggy, written with warmth, intimacy and what reads like genuine love for its characters. Lethem is a generous writer — not just to the Zimmers but to his readers: Every question is answered just when it enters the reader’s mind, every bit of backstory is given right when the reader craves it, an inclusiveness that feels fitting, given the novel’s communist themes.
For its humor, stylistic inventiveness and intense examination of how Americans (and Jews in particular) are shaped by the family politics they inherit, this book will undoubtedly be compared to the work of Philip Roth. As it should be. But in its deep exploration of the messy and symbiotic relationship between leftist mothers and daughters, Lethem’s novel also recalls the stories of Grace Paley and Vivian Gornick’s wonderful books "Fierce Attachments" and "The Romance of American Communism."
Like Paley and Gornick, Lethem brilliantly depicts how kitchen-table politics extend so naturally to the bedroom, the neighborhood and out into the world. And like these writers, Lethem is acutely aware of the complicated role women play in these political movements, particularly in his depiction of Rose, "a single mother before she was made a single mother."
Indeed, "Dissident Gardens" is one of those rare books that succeeds equally on an emotional and intellectual level. All of Lethem’s characters seem to be simultaneously looking inward and outward, making each chapter absorbing on its own, everything building momentum toward the novel’s moving conclusion.
I won’t give anything away, but suffice it to say that the book’s closing contains 50 of the most resonant pages I’ve read in years, as we watch these lonely idealists struggle to find their place in a world of rapidly changing politics. As Cicero says, consoling her toward the end of the novel: "You did okay. ... You existed for a while. It’s in the record books."
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