by Jonathan Lethem’s
366 pp. Doubleday. $27.95
Longtime readers of Jonathan Lethem will not be surprised to learn that New York City is the setting of his new novel, “Dissident Gardens,” though center stage this time is not the author’s native Brooklyn or the Upper East Side but Queens — specifically, Sunnyside Gardens, the planned community complex built in the 1920s. Readers may, however, be either disappointed or relieved to find no superheroes, no aliens, not even a Tourette’s-afflicted self-appointed private detective. No genre-bending this time, the novel seems to say: spanning 80 years and three generations, it realistically portrays an enchanted — or disenchanted — garden of American revolutionaries.
I choose the word “revolutionaries” rather than “activists” for a reason: in this book as in life, activism often comes as a sort of outfit, to be put on and taken off as it goes in and out of fashion. Yet underneath the topical concerns, the characters are set aflame by the timeless spirit of revolutionaries. Rose Zimmer and her husband, Albert, are staunch Communists until he is sent to East Germany as a spy and she is expelled from the party for her affair with a black cop. Miriam, the only child of Rose and Albert, embraces life in a Greenwich Village commune and later embarks with her husband on a journey to Nicaragua to participate in a “poet’s revolution.” Their son, Sergius Gogan, raised as an “official baby brother” at a Quaker boarding school, remains a perplexed child within a grown-up’s body until he discovers his own revolutionary heritage in a three-tent Occupy camp in a New England college town. Branching out from this family tree are other characters with similarly unbending beliefs: Rose’s cousin Lenny (whose given name is Lenin) devotes himself to the concept of a proletarian baseball team and considers himself a crucial player in Bill Shea’s plan for a third branch of the major leagues; Stella Kim, one of Miriam’s fellow hippies and loyal friends, schemes to deprive Rose of her custody of Sergius; Harris Murphy, a teacher at the Quaker school, steps in as a surrogate father for Sergius, teaching him to look for the Inner Light.
Caught in this web of believers is Cicero Lookins — the (legitimate) son of Rose’s black lover. Cicero alone has no ideological pursuits because all has been done for him: black, gay, overweight and Ivy League-educated, he calls himself a “miraculous triple token” at the college where he teaches (though he also takes pride in having bought “the most expensive house . . . he could persuade the Realtors to show him” and having become a “blight on the neighboring trophy homes”).
Things are done to him, too: Lenny extinguishes his passion for chess; Miriam punctures the bubble he has built around himself as a closeted young man; and above all, his self-determination is compromised by Rose, who takes him in as a project, a replacement for her runaway daughter and a substitute for his own father. Rose assigns Cicero books to read, brings him along on her one-woman Citizens’ Patrol, fills out scholarship applications for him and educates him about the world, including the marriage of his own parents. “Is anything more unforgivable,” he asks, “than what a child learns about his parents from their lovers?” No wonder Cicero is angry — but then, so is almost everyone else in the book: anger is a badge of honor for revolutionaries.
One of the many ways to read this novel is as an encyclopedia of decampers. Jews turn Red. Reds turn Jewish. Irish brothers drop letters from their surname to become Americans. The family of a black policeman flees Harlem, in “an abhorrent chapter” in their life, because the man’s black colleagues see him as a race traitor. Miriam leaves her mother’s utopia to find her own. Having lost Miriam to her political calling, Rose, the only character who has not yet decamped (but rest assured: she will, too), thinks bitterly, “At least she made it to Manhattan!”
Decamping may not sound glorious. But when viewed from an opposite angle, these characters can be, and should be, called revolutionaries: they not only give up their own birthrights but are more than prepared to negate others’ birthrights, too.
Lethem’s previous characters have often found themselves in parentless situations, metaphorical or otherwise, and this book can also be read as a novel of orphans. American Communist Party members are orphaned in 1956, when Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress airs the atrocity of Stalin’s purge; Miriam strikes out on her own when larger forces claim her parents; Cicero watches his mother die slowly while his father, suspecting Cicero’s homosexuality, renounces him; Lenny’s Communist parents give up their beliefs and return to Israel; and Sergius is raised by boarding school staff members. No one becomes an orphan by choice, but one can certainly orphan by choice, a deed many characters in this novel seem to find worthwhile.
“Dissident Gardens” seamlessly weaves together three generations, yet it doesn’t broadcast itself as a multigenerational epic, nor is it afflicted by the desire to pose as the next great American novel. It’s an intimate book. Some of the strongest passages feature minor characters. The teenage son of Sunnyside Communists is often found “doing his fly-on-the-wall act at party meetings, helping the kitchen ladies keep the tray of almonds full or pour the tea while he recorded the adult university with his mind”; he “tended his parents’ marigolds in the moonlight while mother and father tore each other’s throats out over Khrushchev’s undeniable and shattering truths.”
Cicero’s father, meanwhile, takes one look at Rose and confirms “everything about her in a glance: his appetite said she was still a woman and his disgust said she was still Red.” When Cicero’s mother is dying, he realizes she “in fact had a language of her own, had, even, appetites. Even after she was sick. Cicero discerned this in eavesdropped phone calls, the sultry pleasure of her gossip, items picked up and savored in slavish delight. The sex lives of others. The deaths of others, which confirmed that she still lived.”
Revolutionaries, like celebrities, clamor for a stage, and Lethem writes most effectively when depriving his characters of stages in both their personal and political lives. The novel opens with a Communist meeting, where Rose, in her own kitchen, is tried and banished from the party for her interracial love affair. The language — “party dossiers,” “excommunication,” “denounced” — is the same as that used in the Soviet Union and China, but here, in the New York of 1955, the situation feels both absurd (Rose will end up in neither a prison cell nor an unmarked grave) and sinister (had they been allowed, these Communists would not have hesitated to lynch their comrade for sleeping with a black man). In one of the most gripping scenes, Cicero’s father must watch his son receive a scholarship award presented by the Guardians Association, the black policemen’s guild that has ousted him. “What a trap they’d set for him! What a trap his whole existence had become: dying wife, Queens political machine proving as depraved with ethnic nepotism as anything he’d met in Harlem; and his know-it-all ex-lover, to whom he’d ceded sponsorship of the child.”
When a character does acquire a stage — Miriam competing on a TV trivia show, Cicero lecturing his students — the novel slackens a bit. Even deaths work better offstage. The disappearance of two activists in the jungle would have been more haunting had they simply reappeared as quiet Americans. Described in detail, their final journey reads like a generic encounter between idealistic Americans and a third-world revolution. It doesn’t help that a character with whom they cross paths is described as “a figure passing through the backdrop of a Graham Greene novel.” Then there is the febrile life and death of Lenny. If we’re to believe his love at first sight for his cousin Miriam (he was 8 and she was a newborn) and his continuing obsession with her, a sexual encounter between him and Rose — one of the few of Lenny’s life — goes a bit too far: he wears an Abraham Lincoln costume during the lovemaking, and minutes later, when he’s out on the street again, bullets fly. The novel’s other, less dramatic deaths leave deeper wounds.
The book seems to ask: Is there ever an unselfish revolutionary? Dazzled by their own heroic egos, these characters don’t see they are but small players in a larger game called history. Lethem records their moves — sometimes lucky, often nearsighted and inevitably falling short — in a narrative that turns out to be almost realistic. I say almost because “Dissident Gardens” is, in the end, a genre-bender after all: a fairy tale retold through the looking glass. Cicero, an Alice in disguise, is led by Rose the Red Queen to a successful coronation. “But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?” Queen Alice asks in Lewis Carroll’s classic. King Cicero doesn’t ask, because he doesn’t expect people on either side of any disagreement to have anything new to say. Is that a pessimistic view of America, where the real conversation — about race, about class, about the country and its politics — remains to be held?