Jonathan Lethem has a narrow range of interests, but he embraces them so intensely, so full-throatedly, that his oeuvre looks like the work of a polymath. His polestars: rock and pop music (You Don't Love Me Yet), provocateurs literary and visual (The Fortress of Solitude), New York City (Motherless Brooklyn and on and on). Any writer dedicated to filling whole books on the Talking Heads album Fear of Music and the funny-on-purpose-sort-of B-horror classic They Live has a busy mind, but even those books only underscore the singularity of Lethem's preferred milieu: the American brand of iconoclasm that launched in the '60s (the decade in which he was born) and the cultural and personal legacy that window smashing, figurative and otherwise, has left in the decades hence.
Reading Dissident Gardens, his comic, infuriated, and (in its superb closing chapters) mournful ninth novel, it's a wonder that he hasn't delved so deeply into politics sooner. The Left, after all, has animated so much of what he's admired as a novelist and critic, from soul power to science fiction to experimental film. Perhaps it takes nine novels to learn how to elude the didacticism that threatens such a theme. But in Rose Zimmer, a hard-nosed but emotionally slippery fellow traveler, Lethem has found a way to leaven this story without giving you the impression he's avoiding the seriousness of the subject. It's a very funny novel until, suddenly, it's not.
The story bounces around in time, but we meet Rose in 1955, just as she's fallen afoul of Communist Party apparatchiks in the Queens neighborhood of Sunnyside Gardens. Her crime? Pursuing an affair with a black cop, Douglas Lookins the cop-ness, not the black-ness, being the problem. But the Party has problems all over. Khrushchev has demoralized the movement by disclosing the horrors of Stalin's purges, and the U.S. functionaries demoralized Rose years earlier by hustling her husband off to serve as a spy in the newly founded East Germany. "What was Rose's failed marriage except evidence, against the whole fable of American history, that European chains could never be shrugged off?" Lethem writes.
The novel's drama and guilty pleasure is in watching Lethem's cast wriggle. Rose's daughter, Miriam, is a red-diaper baby to the core "her whole body demanded revolution and gleaming cities in which revolution could be played out" yet her youthful enthusiasms run closer to Dylan than to SDS. Her romance with a would-be Dylan, Tommy, agonizes Rose: "I tried to raise a young woman but apparently produced an American teenager in her place," she rages as she catches the two in bed. (How much Miriam is and is not her mother's daughter is one of the book's most consistent and deepest tensions.) So Rose's indoctrination efforts are directed instead to Cicero Lookins, Douglas's son. Mission accomplished: "He'd said Help him find the chess books and been handed back a boy who if you put him in great seats behind home plate and tried to settle in to enjoy a game began asking you if you'd read James Baldwin."
Much of Dissident Gardens envelops this parcel of Queens in a nostalgic glow similar to the one that 1970s Brooklyn acquired in the early pages of The Fortress of Solitude. (Slip off the dust jacket: Mets colors.) Its first half largely comprises comic set pieces: Rose's cousin Lenny trying to give the borough a red-tinted baseball team, the Sunnyside Proletarians; a grown-up Cicero intimidating undergrads as a "career magical Negro" lecturer in high-end literary theory; young mother Miriam stonily, disastrously, going on a quiz-show segment of the Today show; Rose visiting a Jewish commune in New Jersey with her husband, years before he was stripped from her: "The place could be taken for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, with the improvement that if you leapt from the window you'd land not ten stories onto pavement but a few feet into dust and manure." Laugh lines abound, but each scene is shot through with a sense of loss and missed opportunities.
In his more exasperating moments his clunky rock novel You Don't Love Me Yet or the loopier essays in 2011's The Ecstasy of Influence Lethem's referent-heavy, bulky prose can make good fun feel like hard work; I think of his prose style as hipster James, though you don't always enter a Lethem sentence with the same confidence James gives you that you'll make a clean exit. Dissident Gardens has its gunked-up passages, too, but its overall arc is as graceful and considered as anything he's written. Two-thirds through, as an aging Rose falls for Archie Bunker, Lethem's prose is so perfectly attuned to the patter of All in the Family that it doesn't immediately register that what he's capturing is dementia and collapse.
And collapse upon collapse: The closing pages of Dissident Gardens reveal fates for Miriam, Tommy, Lenny, and Cicero that leave them temperamentally distant from the people we first met. Which is the point of any political novel that lives and ideologies have consequences. And by working in a few digs at the TSA, Lethem finds a way to fully integrate the Zimmer tale into the present. It's an amusingly subversive move in a novel about subversives: A bit of smash-the- security-state rhetoric from a writer who's now established enough to have his books sold at the airport.
Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who's spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
Reviewed by Mark Athitakis