Structurally complex family saga

by | Dec 5, 2014 | Book Reviews

Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 2013
366 pages, $27.95
ISBN 978-0-385-53493-2

As the American literary giants of the mid-20th century gradually leave the scene, the young literary lions who follow are now producing mature works. Among them is Jonathan Lethem, born in the 1960s, raised in a commune and determined to color outside of the lines. An award-winning novelist while still in this 30s (do read Motherless Brooklyn), Lethem experimented, not always successfully, with mystery and science fiction, published several collections of short stories and in 2003 gave us The Fortress of Solitude, a wonderful coming-ofage novel.

Lethem, now 50, threatens to give the late John Updike a run for his money as the most prolific and multi-faceted author of recent decades, having published nine novels, numerous non-fiction works and edited copious works of literary criticism.

Dissident Gardens may be Lethem’s most important work to date, offering the reader a structurally complex, somewhat prolix three generational family saga. Rose Zimmer, née Angrush, a passionate Jewish “commie” facing excommunication from her communist cell for having an affair with a black policeman, resides in Sunnyside Gardens, a Brooklyn apartment project mainly occupied by members of the workers’ movement. Her ex-husband, Albert Zimmer, also a communist, has defected to East Germany leaving her to raise their daughter, Miriam. The novel opens in the mid-1950s, when the feckless American Communist Party, having survived the World War II Stalinist pact with Hitler, is pretty much torn apart by the revelations of Stalin’s genocidal regime. Rose’s activism is rooted in disdain for capitalism, religion and bourgeois culture in general.

Lethem, like his peers, Jonathan Franzen (whose greatly over-hyped “great American novel of the 21st century,” Freedom, was reviewed here in 2010) and Michael Chabon, seems determined to avoid anything resembling cheerfulness, in a world where only a moron can be happy. As we follow the lifelines of a family whose disfunctionality is displayed against a background of the McCarthy investigations, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the Sandinista scandals, the AIDS epidemic and the Occupy movement, it becomes clear that the proclivity for dissidence, l’dor v’dor, goes from generation to generation. From Rose’s parents to her bright and beautiful daughter, Miriam, and ultimately to Miriam’s commun-raised son, Sergius, there is a moth-to-the-f lame-like attraction to lost causes. Sergius’ mother, Miriam and his folk-singer-songwriter father, Tommy Gogan, fulfill their destinies following a tragically quixotic Nicaraguan episode.

Rose’s 10-year affair with the black policeman, who dies not long after the passing of his chronically ill wife, results in her mentoring of Cicero Lookins, her lover’s brilliant son. Cicero, an immensely overweight, gay intellectual, alternates between shocking and disgusting students at his seminars at a Maine college and fleeting sexual encounters made killingly dangerous by the dread disease of the 1980’s. He alone takes on the task of caretaker as Rose becomes debilitated and demented.

Readers looking to keep up with our 21st century literary stars should not miss Dissident Gardens—subject to an important caveat. (Spoiler: There is no happy ending here. There is no ending.)

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.