Dissident Gardens

Dissident Gardens

3.0 11
by Jonathan Lethem

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A New York Times Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, The Globe and Mail

Jonathan Lethem, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the MacArthur Fellowship whose writing has been called “as ambitious as [Norman] Mailer

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A New York Times Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, The Globe and Mail

Jonathan Lethem, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the MacArthur Fellowship whose writing has been called “as ambitious as [Norman] Mailer, as funny as Philip Roth, and as stinging as Bob Dylan” (Los Angeles Times), returns with an epic yet intimate family saga.
Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist who savages neighbors, family, and political comrades with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her equally passionate and willful daughter, Miriam, flees Rose’s influence for the dawning counterculture of Greenwich Village. Despite their differences, they share a power to enchant the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her feckless chess hustler cousin, Lenny; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinger husband, Tommy Gogan; and their bewildered son, Sergius. Through Lethem’s vivid storytelling we come to understand that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.

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Editorial Reviews

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

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Two Trials

Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party
. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.

Sol Eaglin, Important Communist, had rung her telephone. A “committee” wished to see her; no, they’d be happy, delighted, to come to her home, this evening, after their own conference just across the Gardens— was ten too late? This a command, not a question. Yes, Sol knew how hard Rose labored, what her sleep was worth. He promised they wouldn’t stay long.

How did it happen? Easy. Routine, in fact. These things happened every day. You could get exiled from the cause for blowing your nose or blinking at suspicious intervals. Now, after so long, Rose’s turn. She’d cracked the kitchen window to hear their approach. Brewed some coffee. Sounds of the Gardens fi ltered in, smokers, lovers, teenagers sulking in the communal lanes. Though winter’s dark had clamped itself over the neighborhood hours ago, this early November night was uncannily balmy and inviting, last pulse of the earth’s recollection of summer. Other kitchen windows were spilled to the lanes, voices mingled: Rose’s plentiful enemies, fewer friends, others, so many others, simply tolerated. Yet comrades all. According Rose their respect even through their dislike. Respect to be robbed from her by the committee now entering her kitchen.

There were fi ve, including Eaglin. They’d overdressed, overcompensated with vests and jackets, now arraying themselves on her chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some intellectual assignment. In pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis, when really there was to be no dialectic here. Only dictatorship. And the taking of dictation. Still, Rose sought to be forgiving. These men were too young, apart from Eaglin, to have survived like she had the intellectual somersaults of the thirties, the onset of European Fascism and of the Popular Front; they’d been children during the war. They were drones, men costumed in independent thought who’d become slaves of party groupspeak. None mattered in this room except the sole independent or thoughtful among them, a true and famous organizer, after all, a man of the factory fl oors, Sol Eaglin. And Rose Zimmer’s former lover. Eaglin in his bow tie, hairline now gone behind his high cranium’s arc like the winter’s sun setting. Eaglin the only among them man enough not to meet her eye, the only to grasp anything of the shame of it.

Here was Communist habit, Communist ritual: the living- room trial, the respectable lynch mob that availed themselves of your hospitality while dropping some grenade of party policy on your commitment, lifting a butter knife to slather a piece of toast and using it in passing to sever you from that to which you’d given your life. Yet that it was Communist habit and ritual didn’t mean these boys were good at it, or comfortable: Rose was the veteran. She’d suffered one such trial eight years ago. They sweated; she felt only exhaustion at their hemming and throat- clearing.

The oil painting made small talk. One leaned over and noodled with Rose’s Abraham Lincoln shrine, the small three- legged table bearing her original six- volume Carl Sandburg, a photograph of herself and her daughter at the memorial’s statue in D.C., propped in a little frame, and a commemorative fake cent- piece the circumference of a slice of liverwurst. The young man was fair, like Rose’s fi rst husband— her only husband, yet Rose’s brain persistently offered this slippage, as though some next life lay before her, waiting to be enumerated. The man hefted the medallion and tilted his head idiotically, as if being impressed with the weight of the thing constituted a promising avenue of discourse.

“Honest Abe, then?” he said.

“Put it down.”

He produced an injured look. “We’re aware you’re a civil rights enthusiast, Mrs. Zimmer.”

It was typical of such an evening that every remark found itself getting to the point, whether it wished to or not. Here was the crime the party had invented for Rose, then: excess zeal in the cause of Negro equality. In the thirties she’d been what would later be called, by Redbaiters, a premature anti- Fascist. Now? A too- sensuous egalitarian.

“I had a few slaves,” said Rose, “but I freed them.” At best, a poke at Sol Eaglin. Certainly lost on the young man.

Eaglin stepped in, as he’d been destined to all along, to “handle” her. “Where’s Miriam tonight?” he asked, acting as though his knowledge of her daughter’s name mitigated his incongruous presence in Rose’s life: neither friend nor foe, despite that they’d a hundred times groped at each other’s forms in the darkness. Eaglin was a mere bland operative, an automaton of party policy. Tonight was defi nite proof, like she’d needed proof. You could harbor a man in your bed or your body, play on his nervous system like Paderewski at the keyboard, and not shift his brain one inch out of the concrete of dogma.

Or, for that matter, the concrete of police work.

Nor, incidentally, had she dislodged either man from his wife.

Rose shrugged in reply. “At the age she’s reached I shouldn’t ever know her location, apparently.” Miriam, the prodigy, was fi fteen. Having skipped one grade already she was a high- school sophomore, and a virtual runaway. Miriam lived in other families’ homes and in the dining hall at Queens College, fl irting with Jewish and non-Jewish intellectual phonies, boys who’d a year or two before been scratching their nuts and slapping one another with rolled- up comic books on spinning stools in soda fountains or on the elevated trains, the kind of boys who fell silent, who even quaked, when they shared sidewalks with Rose Zimmer.

“Playing footsie with Cousin Lenny?”

“Sol, the one thing I can say with assurance is she’s anywhere but with Cousin Lenny.” It was Rose’s second cousin Lenin Angrush who’d in fact gifted Rose with the bogus giant penny. A numismatist, he called himself. Lenny, getting the time of day from fi fteen- year- old Miriam? He could dream.

“Let’s not waste any more time,” suggested the young man who’d been at her Lincoln stuff. Rose shouldn’t underestimate the brutal authority of youth: He had some. Eaglin wasn’t the sole power in the room just for being the sole power Rose chose to acknowledge. This young fellow was eager to distinguish himself, likely in the context of some jousting with others present, for status as Eaglin’s protégé. That itself, only a prelude to stabbing Eaglin in the back. Surely that was it.

Poor Sol, really. Still neck- deep in the paranoid muck.

Rose poured them coffee, this brave cohort who’d come to declare she’d picked the wrong Negro. They were talking; she really ought to listen to the verdict. Short of severing the affi liation, Rose would no longer be welcome to the privilege of acting as recording secretary at meetings with union offi cials, including the union at her own workplace, Real’s Radish & Pickle. Her last duty in the party, stripped. There at Real’s, Rose enjoyed the honor of serving in horrifi ed silence as her ham- fi sted comrades bullied workers whose daily facts, whose solidarities, forged side- by- side plunging elbow- deep in barrels of chill salt brine, put to shame the abstractions of the posturing organizers, those arrayed in their dapper suspenders and unwrinkled plaid, not knowing enough to be unashamed of these Halloween- hayride proletarian costumes.

These men in her apartment, they could needless to say go to hell.

Yet Rose’s usual fury was inadequate to the occasion. This kitchenful of moral bandits, even Eaglin, appeared to her sealed in distance, voices dim. The room’s events unspooled before her as if scripted, something happening not to her but to another. A one- act play, worthy of Sunnyside’s Socialist theater troupe, set in Rose’s kitchen and starring her body— her body’s behaviors being the matter under disputation— but no further portion. Heart, if bosom contained one anymore, not in attendance. Rose no longer here. This excommunication something that had already long ago been concluded. She warmed and refi lled coffee, gracing the lynch mob with use of her mother- in- law’s Meissen china, even while they alluded, in terms just oblique enough to salve their own shame but not hers, to Rose’s sex life. Presumed to tell her who to fuck. Who not to fuck, exactly. Or, not to fuck at all. Not to make her own bedroom solidarities with men who, unlike themselves, had the stature and self- possession to want her, to be undeferential to Rose.

For these occupiers of her kitchen, even in their executioner’s errand, were pathetically deferential: to Rose’s force, to her history, to her chest twice the circumference of theirs. She who’d marched in protest of Hitler’s New York birthday party on Fifth Avenue, while American brownshirts pelted her with rotten vegetables. She who’d marched for blacks practically before they marched for themselves. Bringing revolution to Negroes, fi ne. To have one particular black cop in her sheets, not so fi ne. Oh hypocrites! Their incessant,  ealymouthed usage, again and again droning out of the fog of their talk, was “associations.” They were troubled by her associations. They meant, of course, the association of her rapidly aging Jew Communist vagina with the black lieutenant’s sturdy and affectionate penis.

Yet Rose took orders like a mad lobotomized waitress: A little milk, or cream? With sugar? Oh, you like it black, perhaps? So do I. Her tongue stayed stopped, wit unexpressed. A recording secretary, she recorded. Shorthanded her own tribunal as she would that of another, onto some distant mind’s tablet. Shorthand, even mental shorthand, an act of fi ngers scratching at some page barely registered by the mind itself. Here’s Rose Zimmer, née Angrush, the scourge of Sunnyside, she who ought to be punching like a boxer against the elastic shadows that fi lled her kitchen, these ghastly shades of doctrine, and she couldn’t care. This second trial was, really, only a lousy parody of the fi rst. That fi rst one, that had been something. Then, Rose was important in American Communism. Then, she’d been importantly Communistically married, about to be importantly Communistically divorced. Then, she’d been young. She wasn’t anymore. Now mental pen quit scraping mental tablet. Rose receded even further from the events before her, a present life under assault of disarrangement. “Eaglin?” she said, interrupting some droning insinuation.

“Yes, Rose?”

“Come outside.”

The nervous glances that ensued, Eaglin quelled, using his brow like an orchestra conductor would a wand, to cease his players’ tuning. And then he and Rose stepped outside, into the air of the Gardens.

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Dissident Gardens 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Heard a review on NPR. Was wait-listed for the book at my library. Surprised at how quickly I got it. Then I started reading it. I struggled with 5 chapters before I gave up. Despite my interest in the topic and time period, I found the writing difficult and inaccessible. I have a law degree but this book was just too much work.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
New york times should be offering us a rebate! If it had been a food product they would have a nation wide recall of the product how did it get by or was it like the emperors new clothes? This book didnt have on its night shirt
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An amazing book. Lethem does it again. 
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A slow start but an excellent read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'll let you know when/if I finish it.