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.


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