“Dissident Gardens,” Lethem’s ninth novel, introduces us to Rose Zimmer, a captivating addition to the literary pantheon of ferocious American mothers. An unreconstructed communist in Queens, Rose was “the Party-made New Woman, unforgiving in her nature and intoxicating in her demands, her abrupt swerves and violent exclusions.” Rose, who is loosely based on Lethem’s grandmother, survives “the intellectual somersaults of the thirties, the onset of European Fascism” and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. But nothing shakes her zeal, not even getting expelled from the party for her affair with an African American policeman — “she who’d marched for blacks practically before they marched for themselves”! From her apartment in Sunnyside Gardens, “the official Socialist Utopian Village of the outer boroughs,” Rose issues her “epic inquisitions” and her “stunning harangues” to anyone who will listen.
Increasingly, that’s no one. In a voice of perfectly calibrated tragicomedy, Lethem writes that “in Rosa’s lava of disappointment the ideals of American Communism had gone to die their slow death eternally.”
As a story about a family of bitterly disappointed communists in a country that treats them as invisible anachronisms, “Dissident Gardens” is a supremely peculiar tale. But as a story about a quarrelsome family entangled with impossible ideals, it’s touchingly universal.
The book doesn’t so much give us a traditional plot as the pieces to assemble the decades-long arc of Rose’s family, from noisy Red protest to silent Quaker witness. (An excerpt from the novel appeared in the New Yorker in May.) Jumping forward and backward in time, the chapters move through a small group of relatives — including a folk singer, a coin collector, an East German spy. Infused with slapstick and melancholy, it’s a complicated structure that cuts away a lot of connective tissue and leaves questions that sometimes don’t get answered until much later, if at all.
Aside from the indefatigable Rose, the book’s most compelling character is her only child. Miriam is an articulate young woman whom Lethem describes in a characteristic avalanche of parallel phrases as “mothered in disappointment, in embittered moderation, in the stifling of unreasonable expectations, in second-generation cynicism towards collapsed gleaming visions of the future.” Those early years of meeting and picketing and advocating with her mother now mean that Miriam can achieve “routine communion with anyone: teenagers, blacks, suspicious cops, the cowboy-hatted gas station attendant.”
If only she didn’t find her mother so unbearably annoying. Illuminated by Lethem’s continually circling analysis, theirs is a relationship of violent contradictions, “the ceaseless arrangement of mother and daughter coiled in fury at each other yet still bulwarked together inside this apartment against the prospect of anything and anyone else outside.” As in all the book’s bickering relationships, this one involves intricately woven strands of exasperation and love. It’s a paradox neatly captured when Lethem writes: “Miriam hated her mother. . . . And then again, again and at last, Miriam shared with her mother a depth of affection.”
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.