by Jonathan Lethem



384pp/$27.95/September 2013

Dissident Gardens
Cover by David J. High

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Jonathan Lethem tackles his familiar turf in Brooklyn and Manhattan once again in Dissident Gardens, however rather than focus on an individual, not matter how quirky, in this novel, Lethem looks at Rose Angrush Zimmer, a Communist living in Brooklyn and follows her extended family through the decades as they try, in their own ways and with varying success, to make the world a better place for everyone.

The novel opens in the years after Rose's husband, Albert, has left her for his first love, the Communist Party, which has sent him to work as a spy in Nazi Germany.  While Albert has been increasing his importance in making the world safe for Communism, Rose has been rising in the Brooklyn Communist Party, raising he daughter, Miriam, and having affairs, including a brief one with Community Party leader Sol  Eaglin and a more permanent one with married, black, Republican New York City police officer Douglas Lookins. Possibly as a result of the end of their affair, Sol drums Rose out of the Community Party, but Rose's self image is so tied up with Communism, that she maintains her allegiance to the cause, even as the forties turn into the fifties and McCarthyism.

Lethem branches out, exploring how other characters, all tied to Rose, try to improve the world, often by joining movements.  Rose's daughter, Miriam, uses her left wing credentials as a Communists daughter to get in with the folk singing crowd of Greenwich Village, most notably Tommy Gogan, whom she marries.  Rather than trying to build a better world through overtly political activity, the two work through music, created and promoting a song cycle based on the homeless of New York's Bowery. 

Miriam and Tommy's son, Sergius, who is friend's with Rose's lover's son, Cicero Lookins, tries to make sense of the world, listening to Cicero's lectures at a small college in Maine and getting involved with the Occupy Movement, as ineffectual as the great movements which occupied his mother and grandmother.   Lethem also delves into Rose's nephew, Lenin Angrush's activities which are more self-aggrandizing, and Miriam's estranged father, who has created a new family and life for himself in post-war East Germany.

Dissident Gardens is a novel of characters and themes rather than of plot.  While it is more obvious for some of the characters, like Sergius or Lenny, none of the characters are really moving towards any goal or denouement.  Instead, Lethem builds their lives, characters, and relationships through a series of vignettes, shining a light on episodes of their lives, whether it is Tommy Gogan's decision to leave his brothers' folk act and tie his fate to Miriam or Albert Zimmer trying to regain admittance into a life he left decades earlier, these vignettes shine show the striving, and often futility, of the lives of those associated with Rose even as they try to build a better tomorrow.  Through all their failed political and social activity, Rose's clan maintains hope that somewhere down the line there is a utopia that they are helping to build.

Just as Lethem has demonstrated his ability to bring to life the New York of the 70s and 80s when he was growing up, he now shows that he has an equal grasp on the recent history of Manhattan and Brooklyn (as well as Queens). The metropolis forms another character, just as aimless as any who know Rose Zimmer, but allowing itself to be touched and changed by them, even if only in miniscule and temporary ways.

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