"A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers--an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals At the center of Jonathan Lethem's superb new novel stand two extraordinary women. Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist and mercurial tyrant who terrorizes her neighborhood and her family with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her brilliant and willful daughter, Miriam, is equally passionate in her activism, but flees Rose's suffocating influence and embraces the Age of Aquarius counterculture of Greenwich Village. Both women cast spells that entrance or enchain the men in their lives: Rose's aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her nephew, the feckless chess hustler Lenny Angrush; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam's (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinging husband, Tommy Gogan; their bewildered son, Sergius. These flawed, idealistic people all struggle to follow their own utopian dreams in an America where radicalism is viewed with bemusement, hostility, or indifference. As the decades pass--from the parlor communism of the '30s, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, ragged '70s communes, the romanticization of the Sandinistas, up to the Occupy movement of the moment--we come to understand through Lethem's extraordinarily vivid storytelling that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal. Brilliantly constructed as it weaves across time and among characters, Dissident Gardens is riotous and haunting, satiric and sympathetic--and a joy to read"--
The non-linear narrative structure leads to confusion that is only clarified later. One needs to stick to this story to fully appreciate it because all things that at first seem obscure are clarified at some point. However, I fear that many readers may become frustrated by this structure and abandon reading the novel.
The plot follows a group of radicals—most related to each other in some way—through various American dissident movements—Communism, war protesting, hippies, Quakerism, Latin American revolutionaries and the Occupy movement. The characters are true-believers of one type or another and self-absorbed. In the novel, Lethem explores the consequences of American indifference, flexible ethics, racism and materialism on this ardor. “The century’s great comedy: that Communism never existed, not once. So what was there to oppose?”
What remains is what Lethem calls the “long slow departure of faith.” Faith in activism, faith in religion, faith in ethnic roots, and faith in the possibility for meaningful political change. Lethem evokes the wonderful metaphor of the “time pilot”, a video game where Sergius discovers a strategy for dealing with assaulting planes that pose ever increasing challenges by never rising to the level of the challenge. “The time pilot who never fires a shot remains stuck at level one until his enemies thicken to blot out the very air he requires to breathe.” In the end, Surgius comes to realize that movements are futile in this environment and he is “a cell of one.”
I anticipated this book more than any other in 2013.
As they say of Cleveland Browns football franchise, “You are a factory of sadness!”
Not that the book was disappointing. The characters are just dismal people.
I read this book twice. This is the first time I have done that in a decade.
Lethem made a huge leap here with his prose but there is really no plot, and the characters offer little to admire. Lethem made a similar leap forward with regards to structure in his previous novel Chronic City. Chronic City was the first of his books to really feel cohesive. He really made a world, sustained a tone, and it really felt like every piece fit. Though little happened in the plot of Chronic City it hung together well. It did not feel disjunctive. Dissident Gardens is a world unto itself but it is tarpit that only gets thicker and darker until there is eventually, literally, a delusional fantasy about Archie Bunker. I felt the same way I felt when I finished Chronic City: I can’t wait for Jonathan Lethem’s next novel.
Rose and Albert Zimmer live in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, a hotbed of Communism after World War II. It is a community that does not live up to its name. They have one child, Miriam, and when Albert is sent back to his native Germany, to establish a Communist cell, Rose is left to raise their child alone. Already bitter and angry, she becomes harder and more forceful, pushing the envelope at every opportunity, looking for causes to support and causes to protest, not always following party guidelines. After many years, she is excommunicated from the Communist Party for fraternizing with a black policeman with whom she falls in love and develops a relationship. He is already married and the father of a child, Cicero, so their romantic relationship is doomed to eventual failure. Rose seems rightly perceived as a kind of loose cannon as well as a rather loose woman. She flaunts her sexuality, even though she is no longer young, and has a pretty much one-track mind when it comes to what she wants out of life. She is like a steamroller and people get out of her way, and even Cicero, who remains loyal to her until her death, is not her greatest fan.
Miriam comes of age when the flower children are carrying signs saying “make love not war” and the hippies are singing about the “age of Aquarius”. She is loved by her cousin Lenin, but his love for her is unrequited since she marries a folk singer, Tommy Gogan, and they eventually go off together to Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, basically abandoning their only child, a son, Sergius, as her father and then her mother, had once abandoned and/or disappointed Miriam. Sergio grows up in a private school situation where he eventually obtains a full scholarship and is mentored by Professor Murphy who hopes that his relationship with Sergius will help him to gain the attention of Miriam’s best friend, free thinking Stella.
Each of the characters appears to be a hapless creature with some kind of a personal flaw or issue causing conflict in their lives. Stella is a free spirit who will not be tied down, Professor Murphy has a hare-lip, Lenin has unusually short thumbs, Cicero, a teacher and author, is gay, Sergius is a songwriter, like his father, searching for a cause. Lydia is an activist and she and Sergius eventually find each other to begin a life similar to Rose and Miriam’s, that of militant and protester. Although the characters seemed to represent different social issues, from adultery to religious fervor to Communism, to Nationalism, to homosexuality, interracial relationships and interreligious unions, from revolutionaries to freedom fighters, depending on one’s viewpoint, to the imperfect and those that thought they were more perfect than others, they all also seemed to be caricatures of themselves, always unhappy, never quite achieving their goals, often dwelling on the mundane, rather than the crucial issues facing them. They were Job-like in the way life treated them, for whatever good they thought they were trying to achieve, they really seemed to have achieved little. The same restlessness seemed to plague all of the characters and screamed from the pages.
The narrative sometimes seemed to randomly jump from place to place, character to character, theme to theme, borough to borough, nursing home to subway, classroom to apartment, in order to make jarring points which all seemed to come together, unexpectedly, in the end, almost as one common theme; discontent and activism was and still is alive and well. Rose was a radical, as Miriam matures, she too fights the establishment, and when her son grows up, he is preoccupied with the search for a cause. When Sergius becomes involved with Lydia, the theme rolls on with them as they camp in the tent cities of the Occupiers.
Famous names were strewn throughout the novel, from Hitler to Che Guevara to Joseph Stalin, Robert Moses, and William Shea of Shea Stadium’s fame. The author was well versed in the history of the era, and the corruption and protests of the times were described in staccato like fashion. The words and sentence structure were like bullets coming at the reader, only occasionally relieved by the author’s witty narrative. Although the prose was essentially excellent, it sometimes waxed too long. Sometimes the language was inappropriate and offensive when it didn’t need to be so crude. Light and heavy themes occurred adjacent to each other, there was an odd juxtaposition of ideas, so that war and free love seemed to occur on the same page, and the inner light within a person coexisted with the dangers of the pilot light on a stove, and the suffering of a horse and human being were equalized. Rose, who started out as an idealistic communist, wound up worshiping Archie Bunker.
Rose often lived within her imagination and in the end was a shadow of her former self. Her diminishment was a commentary on the meaning of the novel. In the end, the purpose for which one fights is often corrupted and the strength one has often becomes weakness as the task becomes futile and the hero or heroine slackens with the cause and its importance fades. As we age and diminish, waste and wane away, so do our efforts and our causes. Rose is no longer preoccupied with political and civil injustice but is left more concerned with the injustice her body is inflicting upon her as she dwells upon her bodily functions, first and foremost. She witnesses the truth that often the people we hold dearest, our closest allies, those we expect to stand by us through thick and thin are absent and we are supported by the unexpected friend, but she does not show much appreciation. Her life has not changed or taught her very much. Although the prose was essentially excellent, it waxed too long and a bit too poetic.
All of the characters were radicals at heart; but nothing was resolved for them over the intervening decades. They were led by their idealism and their dogma, whether based in realism or whimsy. This story seemed to be about nonconformists struggling to create a world in which they would fit, but each seemed to be waving the same flag for what they perceived as injustice in their attempt to create a better world to little effect.
The discordance and dissonance of the novel was made more apparent by the reader’s interpretation of this audio book. Although not my kind of dialogue, it was well-written and in the end, Albert, mentioned only in the beginning, a man who began his “career with his disillusionment in America’s democracy, is shown at the end of the book tending his own gardens, the ones he cultivates in Germany, still sowing the same seeds of discontentment, in a place owning a name that translates to Dissident Gardens. In the end, weren’t all the characters trying to sow their own seeds, in their own gardens? Did any ever find peace and contentment? Was this entire novel a metaphor for The Garden of Eden, which also yielded disappointment that was inspired by discontent?
This book took me three months to read, and though I love to savor books I read a lot and fairly quickly. I read 25 other books in the time that I was reading this one. I kept putting it down, and found myself without the will to pick it back up. It sat on my bedside table week after week. Every night I looked at it and it glared back, almost accusatory in its silent presence. When I picked it up I would always think; "Why did I stop reading? This is funny and smart." And then I would come out of whatever entertaining digression I came in on and get back to the central characters. I would then think "ah, that is what I was thinking!"
There are passages of this book that are incredibly delightful, but the whole is a mess.
Others may be put off by the relegation of Occupy to a latter day irrelevancy. The point, I think, is worth hearing, even if we don't agree. This seems to me a very much longer version of Eliot's Wasteland,
including at least one quote from it. I don't agree with the viewpoint of the protagonist of the book's second half, but he is a hell of a great character, and one I wanted to meet.
His characters are as intense as his words. Readers are worn out after a dozen pages. (well, this reader was.) And as a treat for all you golden years folks, Letham uses references to Dylan and Dave van Ronk, and pulls snips of lyrics that younger folks will have to google. So this is your book, much like the grocery store musak that now plays big hits of the 70s as you carouse with the veggies and tomatoes.
A long read, one that is easy to put down--it is segmented into separate stories (including a STASI file). But one that feels satisfying when finished. Like a big hippie feast or maybe a big kosher spread.