Dissident Gardens

by Jonathan Lethem

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1741

Author: Jonathan Lethem (b. 1964)

Publisher: Random House (New York). 384 pp.

Type of Work: Novel

Time: Twentieth century

Locale: New York

Acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem explores the interconnected lives of a group of American political leftists, their deeply personal preoccupations set in the shifting political contexts of the twentieth century.

Across Jonathan Lethem's many celebrated novels, New York City regularly presents itself as an additional character, both influencing and being influenced by the people who populate its sometimes-unreal worlds. The characters delve into the city's history, navigate the particulars of little-explored streets, and parse the differences between one neighborhood and the next. Dissident Gardens is no different, even as the focus shifts away from Lethem's beloved Brooklyn to Sunnyside Gardens, a community within the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens.

It is in Sunnyside Gardens that the central character, Rose Zimmer, spends most of her life. Lethem summons a thriving communist underground in Sunnyside Gardens in the 1930s, and it is to this cause and this community that Rose devotes her life (the novel itself spans through the modern day). A Polish Jew, she moves with her family to New York at a young age, and it is not long before she has met her husband, the German Jewish communist Albert, and made family and political commitments that will occupy the remainder of her life. Indeed, Rose's own story is compelling enough—her husband is exiled to East Germany by Communist Party leaders in 1947, and Rose has a long affair with an African American police officer that leads to her own loss of party membership; both events play out with great complexity as she continues to wield power as the matriarch of the Sunnyside Gardens neighborhood. However, it is the cast of characters surrounding Rose that truly forms the material of this broad-scoped novel.

Rose raises her daughter Miriam, who runs away to the hippie lifestyle and communes of Greenwich Village, marries a folksinger, and gives birth to Sergius. However, when Miriam and her husband go to Nicaragua to promote leftist revolutionaries, they are quickly killed, leaving Sergius to be raised by well-meaning antiwar Quakers. Rose's long affair with police officer Douglas Lookins is her downfall in the Communist Party, although it does lead her to a close relationship with Lookins's son, Cicero, who goes on to have a successful academic life despite the challenges thrust upon him as an overweight, black, gay man. In the background to all of this, Rose's cousin Lenny struggles to make good in the world, attempting to start a proletarian baseball league and nurturing an unfortunate sexual obsession with Miriam before he is killed by the Irish Republican Army for a bad business deal. This rough skeleton of a plot provides a large number of almost self-contained stories, such as Miriam's appearance on a game show while high on marijuana and Rose's visit with her husband to a rural, 1940s communist farm.

Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and essayist who mixes literary styles with elements of science fiction and mystery. For his writing, which often focuses on New York, he has won a National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur Fellowship.

As is typically the case with Lethem, the purpose of the novel is not to tell a story with a clearly narrative plot, one event leading logically to the next. Instead, he is interested in exploring the rich inner lives of the characters, especially as they relate to one another. Nearly every character receives his or her own chapter, a space in which the miniscule dramas of the characters' own lives can play out while they interact (even if only in a seemingly inconsequential way) with the other players in Rose's leftist world. Miriam takes a young Cicero to play chess, Lenny commissions a song from Miriam's husband for the baseball league, and Cicero eventually becomes one of the only visitors an aged Rose has as she succumbs to dementia. All of these chance encounters—outside the scope of the novel, many of the characters might not even think of themselves as closely related, or in some cases might not even know each other's names—provide a fruitful ground for Lethem to explore the emotional and intellectual mechanisms in their lives. Rose continually asserts her devotion to the Communist Party and her dominance over the neighborhood even as her family and politics abandon her, Cicero seems to revel in his tokenization by liberals who wish to be more progressive than they actually are, and Miriam's attempts to find her own revolution burn up in a cloud of marijuana smoke.

While the historical scope and number of characters are both dauntingly large, Lethem succeeds in comfortably containing his novel within its own parameters. In part, this is because of his actual concerns: while the leftist and socialist history of New York (and of the United States as a whole) is a primary topic of his, he is not interested in the inner mechanics of the Communist Party or the subtle shifts that brought rise to the Occupy movement. Instead, he is interested in exploring what it means emotionally and socially to be a revolutionary and to have deeply held political convictions in the United States. Take, for instance, an early fight in which Rose and Miriam brawl—Rose even sticking Miriam's head in the oven—after a teenage Miriam brings a Columbia student home for sex. In this fight, Rose's own convictions on behalf of the proletariat and her devotion to the Sunnyside Gardens community come head-to-head with Miriam's obsession with the cosmopolitanism of Manhattan and the folk-singing community of liberals taking rise there. In many ways, Rose and Miriam should be allies in their beliefs (the message of the Communist Party and the ethos of hippies hardly being strangers to one another), but the shifting political climate and their own strong personalities preclude such a friendship, resulting instead in two naked women comically telling each other exactly what they think as the sun rises over Queens.

This historical scope is likewise appropriate to the particulars of Lethem's plot. As is often the case with his novels that focus on New York City, the world of Lethem's fiction cannot be understood apart from the social realities that permeate it. The milieu of Dissident Gardens is a group of powerful women in a society occupied by men, of working- and middle-class intellectuals and artists in an oppressive class system, and of the outer boroughs in the shadow of a bustling Manhattan. In this way, also, the general trajectory of communism as a viable force in US politics is significant, but primarily in a near-metaphorical way, suggesting that the individual and community can overcome and create something better even as we know that quest to ultimately fail its own ideology. These broad scopes and grand historical narratives swirl about Lethem's characters. Readers know that Rose will never see the socialist world she aspires to create and that Miriam's hippie dream will be washed away by the time the commercialism of the 1980s arrives, but in the moments that Lethem summons, the reader is still able to be there alongside them.

It is also important to stress the sheer literary skill Lethem demonstrates when crafting his characters. Like many of the best novelists, he seems to understand them with a loving and familial intimacy while maintaining the distance to poke fun and realize their absurdities. Miriam, for instance, finally manages to confront her absent father, but she does so in a rambling, stoned letter that is intercepted by the Stasi, never reaching the man. Similarly, Lenny decides to name his fantasy baseball team the Sunnyside Pros in what he imagines is a clever disguising of the term proletariat behind the more neighborhood-friendly professionals. Moments such as these allow readers to laugh at the characters and the shortsighted nature of their ideological and personal quests while also cheering for them, Lethem rendering compassion as quickly as humor. The characters are not destined for anything that might be described as success, although they all have the formidable intelligence and devotion necessary to meet difficult goals in the challenging world of New York. Instead, they are deeply human in that their best qualities are reflections of their failures, their loves components of their own self-obsession, and their aspirations intimate to their shortcomings.

For all the grandiose ideas and international warring in Dissident Gardens, the heart of the novel remains contained to the kitchen where Rose and Miriam argue and to the quiet walks the characters share through New York. It is here that Lethem truly thrives and that his characters are best understood. They, like all people, might venture out into the world, navigating neighborhood politics and concocting schemes to make the rent, protesting and singing and fighting to change the world to the beat of their best intentions. However, when they return home, coming back to those people they have known most intimately and for the longest, that is the moment when they most capture Lethem's interest and the attention of the novel. Lethem continually reminds readers that to be of any place (whether New York City or not) is to be shaped by its community, landscape, and politics. It is for this reason that Miriam and Cicero, although nearly strangers to one another, are equal players in this leftist world, and it is for this reason that every character must chart his or her own uneasy relationship to all else, struggling to satisfy individual desires while knowing that the world itself must change for that satisfaction to come. Lethem has earned a reputation as one of the most erudite and penetrating novelists exploring the modern American condition. Dissident Gardens, with its landscape as fruitful as it is dissatisfied, is a significant addition to his impressive oeuvre.

Review Sources

  • Antonpol, Molly. Rev. of Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem. San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst Communications, 14 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Dec. 2013.
  • Hoberman, J. "Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens Visits a Family of American Lefties." Rev. of Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Dec. 2013.
  • Konstantinou, Lee. "Outborough Destiny." Rev. of Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem. Los Angeles Review of Books. LARB, 8 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Dec. 2013.
  • Li, Yiyun. "Red Queens." Rev. of Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem. New York Times 8 Sept. 2013: BR1. Print.
  • Maslin, Janet. "Turn Left, and Head for Queens." Rev. of Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem. New York Times 12 Sept. 2013: C1. Print.

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