Jonathan Lethem seems as much New York City ethnographer as storyteller: His previous novels Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn explored the unique holds the citys neighborhoods have on their occupants.
By LIZ COOK
The Kansas City Star
His latest, Dissident Gardens, continues in that vein, combining equal parts history of New York and history of revolution as it tracks three generations of political dissidents emanating from Sunnyside Gardens in Queens.
Rose Zimmer, the novels volcanic matriarch, fancies herself the American Communist Partys New Woman incarnate, tyrannizing her family with her near feral devotion to her beliefs. Her marriage to a Jewish German expatriate, himself a rising party member, is soon wrecked on reefs of personality, leaving Rose to care for their daughter, Miriam, on her own.
Rose is a volatile and complex character, embodying a host of stubborn contradictions. For all her blue-collar championing, she has a snobbish distaste for the pastoral and pedestrian; an hourlong venture into the New Jersey countryside to meet with farmworkers on a party mission leaves her dying from lack of mental oxygen.
Her daughter, a quixotic charmer and connoisseur of Alphabet City, seems to inherit Roses urban fetishism and revolutionary spirit. Miriam plunges headfirst into the Aquarian Age, leading her own countercultural crusades in Greenwich Village.
Despite Lethems self-aware jabs at the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, Miriam never seems to outgrow the label. She traipses around the city, men preening and swooning in her wake, while she trades the homeless population coffee for their life stories, appraises friends by their astrological signs and acts as whimsical tour guide for a rotating cast of young mentees.
Lethem folds apt critiques into each political perspective. Rose pursues an affair with a black policeman and finds herself unceremoniously ex-communicated from the party. Communism, she discovers, in its obstinate gaze toward the future, refuses to address immediate, pressing divisions and inequities. Miriam, in her peaceful 70s hippie commune, clings to naïve political platitudes, condescending pity and a whimsical idealism that sputters in the face of violent conflict.
Miriams son, Sergius, faces his own revolutionary growing pains as he navigates between the growing Occupy movement and the pacifism espoused by his Quaker boarding school. Once committed to his school mentors Lambs War of nonviolence, he finds pacifism made cruelly irrelevant during his parents foray into a Nicaragua rent by Sandinistas and guerrilla warfare.
Lethems keen psychological insights and incisive take-downs are a major strength and a near necessity for a novel where interactions between characters are more often alluded to than staged. The work of the novel seems to be in probing psyches of characters both hyper-aware and hyper-literary: The text drips with slick references to Foucault and Bollas, Kubrick and Bergman. At one point, Kafkaesque is invoked without irony.
In his commitment to precise psychological detail, however, Lethem cripples the novels pacing with overdressed, inelastic prose. He piles on lists of images where one would prove more powerful, heaping clause after clause onto sentences that become onerous, adorned to the point of garishness.
An afternoon atmosphere becomes noon-luminous, heat immense. The bowl of sky enclosing the two heads scarcely cloud-daubed, blue almost friable where it pressured the rim of pines. Cicero, a college professor and Roses surrogate son, has his dreadlocks described as his irregular self-generated umbrella, his lumpy, going-gray helicopter blades of dreadlock.
Usually an excellent stylist, Lethem here spurns restraint. Nevertheless, his historical precision is commendable, and the novel succeeds in plunging us into the minutiae of each era and setting with reportorial confidence.
So, too, does the novel occasionally glow with Lethems disorienting one-two punches of caustic wit and trenchant farce. Take Ciceros appraisal of Indiana racism: He could smell old nooses rotting in the barn eaves.
Or Roses cousin, the aptly named Lenin Angrush, who conceives a Communist baseball team, the Sunnyside Proletarians, in a pre-Mets market. Later in the novel, he tries to dodge the Irish Republican Army, proclaiming himself The Last Communist like a sideshow freak before making love to Rose in full Abraham Lincoln regalia.
Those moments of levity liven the prose but also feel chilling in their underscoring of the absurdity of the characters struggles. In Lethems world, death is comical, violence inevitable, rebellion feckless. Characters attempts to carve out a piece of utopia prove ineffectual again and again in times as volatile as the Zimmer women.
At the end of Dissident Gardens, Lethem carefully resists moralizing or universalizing, leaving his characters as disparate as their politics. In doing so, each arc retains its precision and individual allure, collating, if not cohering, into a post-modern history of America that, though occasionally unwieldy, seems as authentic as it gets.