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Dissident Gardens

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

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In 2011, Lethem published a book of essays, "The Ecstasy of Influence," in part a vigorous defense of cultural copping and plagiarism. "Dissident Gardens" is more about the agony of influence: All of its characters repudiate their parents and mentors even as they are forced to acknowledge the profundity of their heritage.

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Chief among the rejectors is Rose's only child, Miriam, who flees home by sixteen, drawn to a bohemian commune in Greenwich Village and a life of activist protest. She marries an Ulster Protestant, redheaded musician Tommy Gogan, whose music under her influence takes a more political turn.

"Precisely to the same degree she'd been mothered in disappointment, in embittered moderation, in the stifling of unreasonable expectations, in second-generation cynicism towards collapsed gleaming visions of the future, the morose detachment of the suburbs, Miriam was in fact a Bolshevik of the five senses.  Her whole body demanded revolution and gleaming cities in which revolution could be played out, her whole character screamed to see high towers raised up and destroyed," Lethem writes in a typical passage.

Jumping around in time, "Dissident Gardens" tips us off early that Rose loses everything except her disappointment – husband, daughter, lovers, cousin, only grandchild, mental cogency. Lethem pulls off an extraordinary feat of narrative engineering, circling in and out among his large cast, whose stories dovetail impressively.

The book teems with unhappy endings. One character is gunned down by the Mob, others meet their doom in Nicaragua. Yet there's wit and social satire aplenty, including Rose's late-life, demented obsessions with arch-bigot Archie Bunker and constipation, and Cicero's college course on Disgust and Proximity. The climax is surprising yet astonishingly apt, beautifully punctuating all that preceded it.

Ironically, outsider Cicero becomes the unforthcoming repository of this white family's gnarled history. When Miriam's son Sergius shows up in Maine to try to learn more about his mother and grandmother, he sits in on Cicero's class. Lethem describes the few minutes it takes Cicero to hit his stride, where despite his initial hesitation "the words always then came in a brutalizing flood. He hammered their bodies with his language." This of course could also describe Lethem's own torrent of prose in "Dissident Gardens," which gushes forth in a sustained flood that's both brutalizing and exhilarating. 

Heller McAlpin, a frequent contributor to CS Monitor, reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times and writes the Reading in Common column for The Barnes & Noble Review.

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