The novel’s oddest character is a giant, gay, black professor in Maine named Cicero Lookins, who sticks out and feels just as defiantly alienated as you might expect of a giant, gay, black professor in Maine named Cicero Lookins. He’s an angry man, an “ambulatory grievance.” As a boy, he was schooled by Rose in “the power of resentment” and social activism, and now as “Baginstock College’s miraculous triple token,” he relishes his ability to intimidate his rich white students by accusing them at random of being racists and by berating them for their privileged status before he ducks out early from his light teaching load for a swim in the ocean. It’s a daring bit of social satire, transgressive on several fronts, particularly for a straight, white author. But this isn’t the first time Lethem has shown himself willing to cross the color barrier that keeps so many other liberal writers cloistered in their strictly segregated neighborhoods.
While the chapters in “Dissident Gardens” aren’t as radically varied as the stories in Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” they do present a rich spectrum of voices and structures — and successes. A chapter of letters between Miriam and her obtuse father back in East Germany reaches a quietly devastating conclusion. Among the book’s funnier chapters is one that takes place while Miriam is a contestant on a TV game show, her thoughts punctuated by the host’s rapid-fire questions. Another unfolds during one of Professor Lookins’s disastrously awkward seminars called “Disgust and Proximity.” In these chapters and others, Lethem is almost magically adept at pushing the current action into the background and letting a character’s unmoored thoughts travel freely through the past.
And yet that gravitational pull toward analysis and reminiscence sometimes drags on “Dissident Gardens.” Lethem can write compelling scenes of action and dialogue — a chapter about Miriam’s efforts to lose her virginity is hilarious; another set in Nicaragua is chilling — but a few sections get snarled up in ruminative clarifications of increasingly abstract points. At such moments, the dramatic impulse evaporates, and his prose, often so vigorous, can sound clotted and overwritten. A similar problem keeps Rose from coming fully to life. As the animating power of this novel, she remains strangely quarantined in these chapters. We don’t see much of her fabled social or political activism; like the communist ideal, she’s much described but never entirely realized.
But where else can you read really funny Marxist baseball jokes? Or see how commie parents would dress their children for Halloween? That dialectical tension between mirth and intellectuality has always been Lethem’s most alluring quality, and it accounts for the unpredictability of “Dissident Gardens.” His finesse is on full display in the final chapter, a seemingly slight encounter at the airport that shifts in a blink to a reflection on our harrowing isolation, the tragic lack of comradeship that defines our modern age.
Rose would never admit it, but she’d be proud.
Charles is deputy editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
Jonathan Lethem will be at Politics & Prose on Oct. 3.