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Dissident Gardens

There's wit and social satire aplenty in Jonathan Lethem's new novel about the tolls of idealism.

By Heller McAlpin / September 19, 2013

Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem, Knopf Doubleday, 384 pp.

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The ties that bind – and sometimes choke and fray – three generations of activists are the subject of Jonathan Lethem's epic, energetic, and sometimes enervating tenth novel.

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With Dissident Gardens, Lethem shifts just north of his usual stomping grounds of pre-gentrified Brooklyn featured in earlier books, including "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude." His new novel is set in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, "the official Socialist Utopian Village of the outerboroughs," a planned community development built in the 1920s and "sanctified as a leftist social laboratory" by no less than Lewis Mumford and Eleanor Roosevelt, who were "merely Pink, not Red."

At the heart of this big book about the tolls of idealism is Rose Zimmer, an angry, excommunicated American Communist. This "scourge of Sunnyside," "the Pope of Pedestrianism," is a chronic irritant who spends much of her life spewing a "lava of disappointment" that alienates family and neighbors alike. It's fitting that Rose's maiden name, Angrush, sounds like a combination of anger and bush, for she much resembles a fiery burning bush. 

To capture her and a lively cast of progeny and their complex responses to the world, Lethem heats and whips his prose into the literary equivalent of clotted cream, that delicious, rich – but dangerously filling – cross between butter and whipped cream.

In 1947, when the American Communist Party sends Rose's German-Jewish husband back to East Germany, she is "cast into her life's purgatory: Real's Radish and Pickle [where she works as a bookkeeper], single-motherhood, and Queens without Manhattan, exile to that suburb of the enraged."

Eight years later, the Party expels her for "excess zeal in the cause of Negro equality" – that is, her affair with a married black policeman – an expulsion which ironically spares her from the HUAC. Rose leaves a lasting imprint on this man's son, whose life story is one of the more interesting strands of Lethem's remarkably intricate narrative. Cicero Lookins becomes a Princeton-educated professor at a college in Maine where he's their "miraculous triple token, gay, black, and overweight." Like his onetime mentor Rose, Cicero is "some kind of ambulatory grievance," an obese, dreadlocked Theorist prone to convoluted rants who is "impossible to embarrass. Instead he embarrassed others."

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