Book review: Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem

by Matthew Packer / 26 December, 2013
Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens is an epic family portrait of American communists.
Jonathan Lethem: draws on his childhood. Photo/Fred Benenson


After Jonathan Lethem revealed his hand in “The Ecstasy of Influence” – his plagiarised 2007 Harper’s essay that defended imitation and plagiarism as essential for creativity – his latest novel had to be intriguing, and it is.

In Dissident Gardens, an epic family portrait of American lefties in decline, Lethem appears to have gone back to his earliest sources. Having spent his childhood in a commune and being haunted by the loss of his hippie mother when he was 13, he surely knows his subject. But it’s his keen eye for the social kinds of imitating, particularly desire’s contagiousness in relationships and politics, that really helps shape this compelling story.

At the heart of Dissident Gardens is Jewish matriarch Rose Zimmer, a life-long communist abandoned by her German immigrant husband in the 1940s – and by the American Communist Party in the 50s, following her affair with a black cop.

After Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of 1956 exposes Stalin’s tyranny, breaking “the childish heart of the American CP”, we see Rose’s daughter, Miriam, carry the cause on into the 60s. She’s soon married to folk rebel-without-a-clue Tommy Gogan (who’s overwhelmed by “Dylan’s mercurial demolition of the acoustic scene”) and appears in several of the novel’s patchworked vignettes that hold the drama together.

She and Rose later provide stepbrother Cicero an unlikely education (Rose’s gay, interracial love child goes to Princeton), before Miriam’s own son, Sergius, ends up in a Quaker colony.

Some of the vignettes, such as Miriam’s appearance on a game show and Cicero’s silly performance as a theory professor, resemble scenes by David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, but other moments appear strikingly original – especially the first, enchanted snowy-night meeting between Miriam and Tommy.

We do come to the present day, to a fitting finale and a sort of answer to Lethem’s guiding question: what has become of the American left?

His attitude to his characters, both sympathetic and scathing (as others have noted), seems to stem from his intuition – but not his characters’ – that even desires are borrowed, copied or stolen: Miriam sees men through her best friend’s eyes, Rose never wavers in being a compass needle for others, and peer pressure is frequently dissected.

Unwitting mutual influence on a mass scale, too, has meant the left and right mirroring one another, even in war, as Rose’s ex-husband, Albert, reminds us about Dresden and Hiroshima: not closing fires of World War II, but opening shots in the Cold War.

Most sobering, though, in Lethem’s conclusion about the left, is its apolitical herd mentality that leads to scapegoating. As Rose and others eventually understand, “the true Communist always ends up alone”.

DISSIDENT GARDENS, by Jonathan Lethem (Jonathan Cape, $44.99).

Matthew Packer is an associate professor in English at Buena Vista University in Iowa.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and present lend their support
86105 2018-01-19 15:45:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and pres…

by RNZ

Politicians from at home and abroad are reaching out to offer congratulations to the Prime Minister mum-to-be.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND a mum
86091 2018-01-19 12:36:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND…

by Katie Parker

New Zealand’s newly minted PM and bizarrely cool and normal lady Jacinda Ardern has announced that she and partner Clarke Gayford are expecting a baby

Read more
Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy
86074 2018-01-19 11:11:36Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy

by RNZ

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that she is pregnant, with the baby due in June.

Read more
What the media silly season taught us
85933 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

What the media silly season taught us

by Graham Adams

To the eternal gratitude of media chiefs, each holiday period seems to throw up at least one minor scandal that runs in the absence of anything newsy.

Read more
Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyranny of events
86009 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyra…

by Richard Prebble

I predicted Bill English would lose the election and the winner would be Winston Peters. But no forecaster, including the PM, predicted her pregnancy.

Read more
Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’
85966 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z World

Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’

by Justin Bennett

It's known as a 'suicide forest', but Justin Bennett found Aokigahara's quiet beauty outweighed its infamous reputation.

Read more
Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye
85816 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Arts

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance …

by Sally Blundell

New essays on New Zealand-born US artist Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist.

Read more
Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more