Book review: Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem


The idea of The Great American Novel feels like an albatross around the neck of that country’s literature. Sooner or later every white middle-class male writer with any kind of reputation feels obliged to have a stab at it, usually with limited success. Eventually they think it’s time to pack away all the fun stuff like storytelling, energy and plot, and make some big state-of-the-nation address, telling people exactly how things stand in the good ol’ US of A. Interestingly, America’s women writers don’t tend to feel the obligation to grandstand so strongly, and their novels are usually all the better for that.

And so to Dissident Gardens, being touted by many as Jonathan Lethem’s “big” book. Lethem has been a diverse and interesting voice in American letters for a while, scattering his work across genre and form. This book, described on the inside of the jacket as “a radical family epic, and an alternative view of the American twentieth century” is his most ambitious to date, but also, oddly, one of his more conventional works.

It conforms to that template of the big rambling American tome, the one with very loosely intertwining lives, spread over decades and generations, a book that’s trying to say big things about the changing nature of society through the minutiae of the characters’ lives. In that respect, I always felt that Dissident Gardens was trying too hard, always straining for effect, for portent, for Big Important Themes. The end result, for this reviewer anyway, was a rather boring and underwhelming novel, despite some interesting prose, strong set pieces and quirky characterisation.

The focus for Dissident Gardens is geographical, Sunnyside Gardens in the Queens borough of New York, a little socialist enclave in a country that bows down to that great false god capitalism. The central character is Rose Angrush Zimmer, and the book opens in 1955 with her being thrown out of the local Communist Party cell for having an affair with a married black cop. Rose is an irascible, larger than life force, too stubborn to conform to conventional party politics but deeply dedicated to her own form of socialist justice at the expense of her own relationships with those around her.

As the novel progresses we get the stories of a whole bunch of people whose lives closely link with Rose’s. First up is her daughter Miriam, an eternal sparring partner for her mother, a girl who, as a young woman, hooks up with the Irish protest singer Tommy Gogan and joins the hippie movement, before disappearing off to support the rebels in Nicaragua fighting against oppressive right-wing forces.

We also get Cousin Lenny, a diehard communist of the old school, a man who almost revels in his own loserdom status, grumbling about his failed attempt to start a socialist baseball team nearby, turning against anyone whose political or cultural views differ from his own by a single iota.

We also get Cicero, the son of Rose’s cop lover Douglas. Having been part-raised by Rose, Cicero in later life becomes a professor, finally releasing his repressed homosexuality, but taking out his loneliness and bitterness about his early life on his hapless students. And, finally, we have Rose’s grandson Sergius – raised in a Quaker boarding school, he latterly comes into contact with the Occupy movement in a plot device that is spurious and clunky to say the least.

And that’s your lot. Dissident Gardens is essentially plotless. It’s full of anecdote and incident, backstory and chatter, but none of it goes anywhere in particular. It’s clearly Lethem’s intention to draw a line in the reader’s mind from communism through socialism to the hippie years and onwards to the current Occupy movement, but those links feel obvious, forced and never earned.

The vast majority of the characters here believe in a specific ideology, and nine times out of 10 it’s an ideology that loses the battle for dominance in the wider society. Lethem seems to be asking whether or not that matters in the end. It’s an interesting idea to look at that kind of loss. How does a person cope or react or even keep on living when their defining opinions about society are no longer in step with the society around them? But again I felt that Lethem was always trying too hard to make connections that weren’t there.

Stylistically, too, it felt like Lethem was pushing too hard. Unlike in many of his previous works, the prose here is convoluted and tricksy, without the charismatic energy of, say, Dave Eggers, or the wild flights of fancy of Michael Chabon.

This novel has received rave reviews from all the usual literary publications in the United States, so maybe I’m missing something elemental here, but for me this was a big, messy disappointment of a novel.