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.
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."
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.
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.