Dissident Gardens: A Novel
by Jonathan Lethem
Hardcover- N/A

A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers—an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals

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  "Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem" by thewanderingjew (see profile) 03/05/14

With the end of WWII and the failure of the Nazis, the forties are overrun with the fear of the spread of Communism. As the fifties begin, Joe McCarthy finds them under every rock. The Korean War enters the headlines. In the sixties, the hippies and flower children spout “make love not war”. Vietnam takes center stage. By the time the novel ends, in the 21st century, the Occupy movement, supposedly representing “the 99%” of the population, is in the headlines. The protest movement is alive and well and the reader may well wonder if the story begins and ends in practically the same place, with disenchanted characters helpless to really effect any lasting change, regardless of the intervening decades, still actively marching. With the touch of humor that the author injects, the reader is relieved from the constant tension and hopelessness of the novel’s major theme.
Rose and Albert Zimmer live in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, a hotbed of Communism after World War II. It is a community that does not live up to its name. They have one child, Miriam, and when Albert is sent back to his native Germany, to establish a Communist cell, Rose is left to raise their child alone. Already bitter and angry, she becomes harder and more forceful, pushing the envelope at every opportunity, looking for causes to support and causes to protest, not always following party guidelines. After many years, she is excommunicated from the Communist Party for fraternizing with a black policeman with whom she falls in love and develops a relationship. He is already married and the father of a child, Cicero, so their romantic relationship is doomed to eventual failure. Rose seems rightly perceived as a kind of loose cannon as well as a rather loose woman. She flaunts her sexuality, even though she is no longer young, and has a pretty much one-track mind when it comes to what she wants out of life. She is like a steamroller and people get out of her way, and even Cicero, who remains loyal to her until her death, is not her greatest fan.
Miriam comes of age when the flower children are carrying signs saying “make love not war” and the hippies are singing about the “age of Aquarius”. She is loved by her cousin Lenin, but his love for her is unrequited since she marries a folk singer, Tommy Gogan, and they eventually go off together to Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, basically abandoning their only child, a son, Sergius, as her father and then her mother, had once abandoned and/or disappointed Miriam. Sergio grows up in a private school situation where he eventually obtains a full scholarship and is mentored by Professor Murphy who hopes that his relationship with Sergius will help him to gain the attention of Miriam’s best friend, free thinking Stella.
Each of the characters appears to be a hapless creature with some kind of a personal flaw or issue causing conflict in their lives. Stella is a free spirit who will not be tied down, Professor Murphy has a hare-lip, Lenin has unusually short thumbs, Cicero, a teacher and author, is gay, Sergius is a songwriter, like his father, searching for a cause. Lydia is an activist and she and Sergius eventually find each other to begin a life similar to Rose and Miriam’s, that of militant and protester. Although the characters seemed to represent different social issues, from adultery to religious fervor to Communism, to Nationalism, to homosexuality, interracial relationships and interreligious unions, from revolutionaries to freedom fighters, depending on one’s viewpoint, to the imperfect and those that thought they were more perfect than others, they all also seemed to be caricatures of themselves, always unhappy, never quite achieving their goals, often dwelling on the mundane, rather than the crucial issues facing them. They were Job-like in the way life treated them, for whatever good they thought they were trying to achieve, they really seemed to have achieved little. The same restlessness seemed to plague all of the characters and screamed from the pages.
The narrative sometimes seemed to randomly jump from place to place, character to character, theme to theme, borough to borough, nursing home to subway, classroom to apartment, in order to make jarring points which all seemed to come together, unexpectedly, in the end, almost as one common theme; discontent and activism was and still is alive and well. Rose was a radical, as Miriam matures, she too fights the establishment, and when her son grows up, he is preoccupied with the search for a cause. When Sergius becomes involved with Lydia, the theme rolls on with them as they camp in the tent cities of the Occupiers.
Famous names were strewn throughout the novel, from Hitler to Che Guevara to Joseph Stalin, Robert Moses, and William Shea of Shea Stadium’s fame. The author was well versed in the history of the era, and the corruption and protests of the times were described in staccato like fashion. The words and sentence structure were like bullets coming at the reader, only occasionally relieved by the author’s witty narrative. Although the prose was essentially excellent, it sometimes waxed too long. Sometimes the language was inappropriate and offensive when it didn’t need to be so crude. Light and heavy themes occurred adjacent to each other, there was an odd juxtaposition of ideas, so that war and free love seemed to occur on the same page, and the inner light within a person coexisted with the dangers of the pilot light on a stove, and the suffering of a horse and human being were equalized. Rose, who started out as an idealistic communist, wound up worshiping Archie Bunker.
Rose often lived within her imagination and in the end was a shadow of her former self. Her diminishment was a commentary on the meaning of the novel. In the end, the purpose for which one fights is often corrupted and the strength one has often becomes weakness as the task becomes futile and the hero or heroine slackens with the cause and its importance fades. As we age and diminish, waste and wane away, so do our efforts and our causes. Rose is no longer preoccupied with political and civil injustice but is left more concerned with the injustice her body is inflicting upon her as she dwells upon her bodily functions, first and foremost. She witnesses the truth that often the people we hold dearest, our closest allies, those we expect to stand by us through thick and thin are absent and we are supported by the unexpected friend, but she does not show much appreciation. Her life has not changed or taught her very much. Although the prose was essentially excellent, it waxed too long and a bit too poetic.
All of the characters were radicals at heart; but nothing was resolved for them over the intervening decades. They were led by their idealism and their dogma, whether based in realism or whimsy. This story seemed to be about nonconformists struggling to create a world in which they would fit, but each seemed to be waving the same flag for what they perceived as injustice in their attempt to create a better world to little effect.
The discordance and dissonance of the novel was made more apparent by the reader’s interpretation of this audio book. Although not my kind of dialogue, it was well-written and in the end, Albert, mentioned only in the beginning, a man who began his “career with his disillusionment in America’s democracy, is shown at the end of the book tending his own gardens, the ones he cultivates in Germany, still sowing the same seeds of discontentment, in a place owning a name that translates to Dissident Gardens.

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