They Beg to Differ

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday. 366 pp. $27.95.

Jonathan Lethem is the official novelist of my son’s neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now known as Boerum Hill, it was North Gowanus when Lethem grew up there, and is the setting for the first of his books that I read, a wonderful novel called Motherless Brooklyn. Lethem, like my son, is apparently obsessed with the Talking Heads, also with the Star Wars movies (he saw the first one 21 times in the theater. Does that count as an obsession?). He is also obsessed with the science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick, a passing interest of mine, and did a wonderful job editing him for his Library of America volumes.

My son once e-mailed me, “I’m sitting in a coffee shop beside Jonathan Lethem.” Apparently in Brooklyn even famous people, MacArthur fellows, sit in coffee shops and work on their computers. And on various years at Christmas, my son has given me the latest Lethem as a gift. I’m always behind in my reading, so I just got to the most recent of these gifts, and the most recent of Lethem’s novels, Dissident Gardens.

It was a long slow read—I like that kind of book, when its good—and I was tremendously moved when I finished it, with a feeling that I’d just read a history of the American left. That’s weird, because there are only six characters of interest in this novel, covering three generations. There’s a feeling, nevertheless, that Lethem really covered the ground, from the American Communists of the early part of the 20th century to the Occupy movement that occurred right before—or perhaps right as—the novel came out, in 2013. I don’t think these people are right about everything, or about all that many things. Too often they make the grand gesture of shooting themselves in the foot (or the head). But I admire their spirit.

I must admit that I had trouble getting into the novel. Lethem is a fine stylist, in love with words (somewhat enamored, I would say, of his own voice), and doesn’t make concessions. The first three sections of the novel take place in different time frames—the three generations I’ve mentioned—and at first I had no idea why the book was jumping around so much, where the narrative was headed.

I would have to say that, in conventional terms, there is no narrative. The novel continues to move through these time frames as it wishes, almost, I would say, at random. Any particular section is satisfying as a narrative, and develops beautifully, but the sections don’t apparently go together. Nevertheless, if you continue, they ultimately paint a portrait of three generations of this family, and you have the feeling you’ve read a generational saga, like Buddenbrooks or something. But you read it out of order. You jumped around at random.

That first section concerns the matriarch, Rose Zimmer, a person of indomitable spirit who actually survives for much of the novel, but the novel opens with the central scandal of her life, which is that—while she was active in the American Communist Party—she was having an affair with a black policeman. An affair would have been fine: the party itself had sent her husband to work in Germany, effectively ending her married life. A black man? No problem, at least not for the Communists. But a cop? You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Rose was the kind of woman who wouldn’t let the Party, or anyone else, tell her what to do.

The second section concerns Rose’s only offspring, a young woman named Miriam, who had become a leftist Greenwich Village Bohemian and who basically shared her mother’s values but also shared her refusal to be pushed around by anyone, including Rose herself. She is seventeen in that early section, hanging around in the Village with a bunch of friends, and they decide that they should trek over to Brooklyn and crash a party Norman Mailer is giving at his apartment in Brooklyn Heights. They don’t think it should be a problem. Miriam’s date that evening was one guy, but then she was attracted to an older man, and in the course of their trek to Brooklyn everyone else in the group eventually drops out, and Miriam decides it is this man with whom she’d like to lose her virginity.

They then have the perpetual New York problem: nobody has a place where they live alone, and hotels are way too expensive. Miriam decides her only recourse, in the wee hours of the morning, is to drag him back to the apartment in Queens that she occupies with Rose. She seems to think that won’t be a problem, and of course Rose’s sexual mores aren’t exactly conventional. But the two women wind up having a terrific argument over this incident (and the sexual encounter never happens). It’s two strong-willed women having at it, a mother and daughter.

Lethem’s own mother was a political activist who died of a brain tumor when he was thirteen, and I’ve wondered if in some way Miriam is a portrait of her. I do like Rose, but all the American commie stuff gets tiresome for me, it seems so ultimately misguided. Miriam for me is the most intelligent, sexy, and interesting character in the book. She eventually marries a folksinger—Lethem’s own father is a graphic artist, so he grew up in a Bohemian household—and they lead a hand to mouth existence that combines art and political activism. I was always delighted to come to a section of the novel that included Miriam, always sorry when it ended and felt that it had ended too soon. I guess you’d have to say Rose is the fount of the family spirit, but Miriam for me is the center of the novel.

The third section opens with two men swimming—or maybe floating—in the ocean in Maine (I can’t help thinking how cold that was, anytime I ever stepped in it). One is a 300 pound African American college professor named Cicero Lookins, who teaches at a small liberal arts college up there. He was the son of the black policeman Rose had the affair with, not Rose’s son, but the son of the cop’s wife. Rose nevertheless took him under her wing and mentored him all his life—how this went over with the cop’s wife I don’t know—but Rose was that kind of overbearing person, who did what she wanted. The other floating head in that ocean is a white one, and belongs to Sergius Gogan, a younger man who is the son of Miriam and her not so famous folk singer husband Tommy Gogan. Sergius is questioning Cicero about his family, because Cicero knew them back in the day. And Sergius hardly remembers his parents, because they went on an activist mission to Nicaragua during the wars there and never came back. Sergius was eight when they left.

Lethem said in 2007—years before he wrote this book—“My books all have this giant, howling missing [center]—language has disappeared, or someone has vanished, or memory has gone.” Miriam and Tommy are the giant howling missing center in this book, and we know it almost from the start; this section begins on p. 47. But we continue to read about all these characters throughout the novel. Eventually we see the situation that will lead to Miram’s death. It doesn’t seem heroic, alas, or some major help with their efforts in the war. It seems stupid.

Despite its focus, I wouldn’t call this a political novel. These people are just as goofy, stubborn, misguided, and impractical as all the leftists I’ve known in my life. Perhaps I prefer Miriam because she’s the closest to my generation. Lethem obviously has leftist leanings—as I do—and is sympathetic to the group, but doesn’t glorify them. The novel’s final scene in a way makes up for what didn’t happen to Miriam that night when she took the older guy back to Queens, and it doesn’t have tragic consequences, just unfortunate ones. But even when Sergius gets in trouble for essentially doing nothing, he doesn’t back off from what he did, and doesn’t give into the authorities. He hardly knew Rose, and didn’t know his mother, but he is their child to the end.

The apparently non-existent structure of this novel is somehow brilliant. It seems fragmentary as you read it, there are holes all through it, but by the end it seems entirely whole. I don’t know how the man did that.

But I’ll be reading more Jonathan Lethem.