Review: Jonathan Lethem’s "Dissident Gardens"

Doubleday • 384 pp. • $27.95 • 10 September 2013

This review has been drawn from the November issue of the American Reader, available in our Shoppe.

Jonathan Lethem is a combination artist. He is an author famous for mixing together different genres of literature to make something new. It gives his books a certain verve; they hit the ground running, and they run con brio. Yet, in Mr. Lethem’s case, this penchant for combination is no unmixed virtue. The omnivorous ambition of his talent threatens to overwhelm his books with gratuitous or inadequately developed material. Ceaselessly creative, he creates nothing. Unfailingly comprehensive, he captures nothing.

This pattern is evident from his first novel, the somewhat underrated Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), perhaps best categorized—if we must­­—as hardboiled dystopian sci-fi. The plot, dialogue, and prose style of Gun are those of conventional hardboiled fiction, but the novel also boasts a profusion of clever science fiction touches. In Mr. Lethem’s imagined world, Freudian psychology is classified as a religion, citizens must earn sufficient “karma credits” or risk being deep frozen in prisons, adults have the option of practicing genital-nerve switching, genetically-modified “baby-heads” and “evolved animals” roam the streets as important characters, and the state employs a repressive form of mnemotechnics to control its population.

These science fiction elements are fascinating, ingenious, and potentially rich sources of literary value. But while such elements are fully incorporated into the works of Philip K. Dick or Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (2005), Mr. Lethem never integrates them into the life of the novel in a truly satisfying way, leaving unplumbed their potential depths of significance. The ultimate result is one of sci-fi ornament studded onto a noir framework, or a sort of idiosyncratic sci-fi Wunderkammer.

Like Gun, with Occasional Music, The Fortress of Solitude (2003) tries to cover a lot of ground: it is—all in one—a neighborhood novel, a coming-of-age novel, a race novel, and a magical realist novel. It delivers, among many other things, a nostalgic and insightful perspective on the genesis of the neighborhood of “Boerum Hill,” but trouble arises when the main character receives a magical ring which imparts to its wearer either the power of flight or invisibility. It is impossible to regard this ring as anything except a silly and gratuitous intrusion that detracts from the main, more interesting currents of the novel. Indeed, the flight to full-on fantasy implicit in this move lays bare an uncomfortable truth at the heart of Mr. Lethem’s genre-mixing—its function as an escape mechanism.


So, Jonathan Lethem never writes a single novel when he can write three novels rolled into one, and Dissident Gardens is no exception. It is a neighborhood novel: the author’s peripatetic imagination, which has wandered in previous works from Brooklyn’s Court Street (Motherless Brooklyn, 1999) and Boerum Hill (The Fortress of Solitude) to Manhattan’s Upper East Side (Chronic City, 2009), now re-crosses the East River to rest in Queens’ Sunnyside Gardens. It is a political novel, one whose plot is shaped by the vicissitudes of the Popular Front, the machinations and intrigue of American Communism, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and even the crepuscular spasms of the Occupy Movement. Finally, it is a multi-generational family novel, in the style of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901), narrating the fates of three generations of American radicals along with a few of their relatives and associates. 

Defiantly standing at the head of Dissident Gardens is the Jewish matriarch-cum-termagant Rose Zimmer, “the Last Communist.” An indefatigable activist and organizer, Rose also verges on bullying and borderline abusive behavior toward family members and strangers alike. One of many communists in the 1930s to whom the hilarious, thought-contorting label “Premature Anti-Fascist” was applied, she is expelled from the Communist Party in the 1950s for her sexual relationship with an African-American policeman, or for being—in Mr. Lethem’s sly phrase—a “too-sensuous egalitarian.” Initially devastated by her expulsion, Rose attempts to substitute a “dogged community-mindedness” for her prior work for the Party, abandoning the project of global revolution in favor of reformist localism (“vanished into the neighborhood,” as one character puts it). But Rose’s bitter experience with the Party­—along with her genuine sorrow at its rapid demise in the aftermath of the Secret Speech—warp and distort her inner self unto Ahab-levels of trauma. She lingers on as a “flesh monument, commemorating Socialism’s failure as an intimate wound.” A “volcano of death” bubbles inside her.

Rose’s daughter Miriam incarnates the New Left in America. A “Queens College freshman dropout” and “Bolshevik of the five senses,” Miriam marries a protest folksinger and lives in a commune on the Lower East Side. Eventually, she and her husband are murdered in Nicaragua by the Contras and their nefarious American allies. This leaves their young son Sergius an orphan to be raised at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania. Mr. Lethem accentuates the visceral quality of Miriam’s leftism: “Her whole body demanded revolution and gleaming cities in which revolution could be played out.” In Rose, by contrast, the life-impulses themselves are captured and subverted. “Dying inside,” Mr. Lethem writes, “was for Rose a way of life.”

The most interesting relationship in the book is between Rose and Cicero Lookins, the child of the African-American policeman with whom she had her fateful liaison. Cicero spends most of the novel as a college professor in Maine. There he is “Baginstock College’s miraculous triple token, gay, black, and overweight.” In the same vein, Cicero entertains caustic reflections regarding how his blackness has functioned for others: “A career magical Negro.…A compass for the soul journey of the straight white folks.” Like Rose, Cicero is a ferocious debater driven by impulses less than angelic. He yearns to “unmask and unmake, to decry and destroy” the comfortable fictions people tell themselves. However, Cicero’s gift proves a double-edged sword: “Born a machine for debunking bullshit, he was also a machine for producing silence.”

Cicero stands at the center of the most nightmarish scene in Dissident Gardens. He self-destructs while teaching his class “Disgust and Proximity” to a room of refractory college students. (A similarly excruciating scene occurs in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001); in that case, the self-demolition is Chip Lambert’s and the class is “Consuming Narratives.”) Mr. Lethem mercilessly channels professorial anxieties centered on the theatrics of teaching: the scene opens with Cicero’s observation, “There was, first, always, this unbearable production of self.” Likewise, Mr. Lethem lays bare the abject dependence­—almost always dissimulated­—on the goodwill of students which is at the bottom of all teaching, a dependence he brings to light precisely by depicting the disaster of its sudden withdrawal. 

Both more and less than a full character in Dissident Gardens is the neighborhood intersecting the lives of all­—a matrix, a proscenium, a tomb: Sunnyside Gardens, in Queens. As its name hints, Sunnyside Gardens is a product of the Garden City movement. Inspired by radical American political theorists Henry George and Edward Bellamy, this movement declared that cities should be rationally ordered, economically autarkic communities densely layered with thick swathes of green parkland.

Mr. Lethem’s portrait of Sunnyside Gardens, “the official Socialist Utopian Village of the outerboroughs,” reflects its political genealogy. It exists as a “humane environment grounded in deep theory” with its “houses bounded around courtyard gardens” and a “shared commons.” As for the felt character of the place, Mr. Lethem writes, “The Gardens were half Kropotkin Commune and half Gramercy Park.” Its inhabitants include “Italians, Irish, Negroes, Jews, and the occasional Ukrainian peasant.” Luckily, they all speak a common language—“the fershlugginer tongue of Queens, distinguished from the stigma of the Brooklyn accent primarily by its nagging and lethargic undertones.”

Yet for Rose and others, Sunnyside Gardens exists as a “suburb of disappointment”—a place whose antic energies, fortuitous relationships, and native schemes did not in the end come to the glorious fruition whispered at its inception. In the case of Rose the radical, the generically liberal Sunnyside Gardens does not offer itself as a platform, like she envisioned, for the “usurpation of Pink by Red…what the Popular Front was meant to accomplish.” Instead, it seems to facilitate the opposite sort of usurpation, a volte-face which Mr. Lethem appears to waver between lamenting and endorsing.

Dissident Gardens is—like its famous archetype, Buddenbrooks—a multi-generational history of a single family. Mr. Lethem himself invites comparison between the two novels. We are repeatedly reminded that Rose’s husband, Albert, was born and raised in a house in Lübeck “next door to none other than the family home of Lübeck’s great scion Thomas Mann, the Buddenbrooks house.” In Buddenbrooks, the successive patriarchs of a great Hanseatic merchant family fight a losing battle to retain and transmit to their descendants the hard won legacy—both material and immaterial—of their forebears, but the characters in Dissident Gardens are more concerned with inculcating in their young the desire to destroy the past, to usher in a revolutionary millennium.  The struggle in Buddenbrooks is essentially bourgeois: to steward with care what has been wrested from nature with maximal effort. That in Dissident Gardens is essentially radical: to create self and world anew, to break free from the past.

Neither struggle succeeds. The second half of the title of Buddenbrooks is “Verfall einer Familie”—i.e., “Decline of a Family.” Dissident Gardens might conceivably bear the same addition. Both novels are novels of failure and disappointment. In Buddenbrooks, the very last potential savior of the family—little Hanno Buddenbrook—is ruthlessly dispatched in a chapter that begins, “Typhoid runs the following course.” In Dissident Gardens, the diminutive Sergius—“the Quakerest kid” and lackluster Occupier—corresponds to Hanno; both are anemic musical devotees ultimately incapable of shouldering the loads unfairly assigned them by fate. The central fact of failure inflects the experience of time in both novels. Buddenbrooks presents the conservative experience of time as a doomed attempt to preserve the past for the sake of the future while beset by insuperable, rotting decay. Dissident Gardens, by contrast, confronts the stalled nightmare of revolutionary time in America. A senile Rose tells Cicero: “Capitalism wouldn’t get out of the way. We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t begin to exist. It filled all available space.”

Yet even if both novels hew to the same basic multi-generational trajectory of the family, the fragile, subsistent unity at the heart of Dissident Gardens is arguably not the family, as it is in Buddenbrooks, but the “cell”—i.e., the circle of comrades joined to one another through ideological affinity rather than biological accident. Rose, Miriam, and Sergius all attempt to make use of the cell-form as a way of grounding meaning in their lives and supporting their mutual projects; in every case the world grinds these attempts to dust. Shortly before dying in Nicaragua, Miriam thinks to herself that she has discovered “as did Rose” that “every cell is infiltrated in the end.” Likewise when Sergius is detained and interrogated by airport security for specious reasons, he finds himself, “Arrived at last at this nowhere in which he became visible before the law. A cell of one, beating like a heart.”

Cell and family jostle and pry at one another without quite ever culminating in either the mastery of one or the rapprochement of both. Rose’s husband Albert is ordered overseas at the behest of the Party, breaking up their family. Likewise, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech is supposed to have stimulated much marital discord in Sunnyside Gardens. The commune where Miriam, her husband Tommy, and their son Sergius reside might suggest the possibility of the family engulfed by the cell. However, Miriam’s assumption of the lion’s share of domestic duties within the commune, as well as the somewhat odd pride she and Tommy take in their monogamy, casts into doubt the true extent of their “cellular” life.


Lionel Trilling—alluded to early in the novel—forcefully argued that the political function of the novel was to help undermine the sway of what he called “ideology.” He used this term to designate that “strange submerged life of habit and semi-habit in which to ideas we attach strong passions but no very clear awareness of the concrete reality of their consequences.” Novels could loosen the grip of ideology, he thought, only if they are written from a position of “moral realism” dedicated to exposing ideas in their full psychological and social nuance—i.e., showing them as they are concretely understood, internalized, and acted upon by real human beings in their folly and finitude, but also in their magnanimity and rapture. Novels thus permit “the perfect criticism of ideas by attaching them to their appropriate actuality.”

Dissident Gardens—the entirety of which takes place within one radical leftist milieu or another—might at first appear ripe for assimilation to Trilling’s template, but it suffers from a crucial defect: the absence of any real or compelling political ideas. In diametric opposition to an almost nauseatingly intellectual novel like Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964), Dissident Gardens floats through a succession of circumambient milieus untethered to any expressed intellectual underpinning. A young musician, explaining to Sergius the lack of any “cell” at the center of Occupy, inadvertently makes this condition of the novel explicit: “Like a way of being…Just living differently.”

When political ideas do appear, they do so in the form of hackneyed, un-illuminating clichés. “Dialectic” and things “dialectical” are a common metaphor. Marriage is said to be a “highly dialectical situation.” Communist intellectuals are “in pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectic Whosis.” Likewise, the judgmental slant of much of the text—enabled by the free indirect discourse employed throughout by Mr. Lethem—precludes any attempt to stimulate the moral imagination, as suggested by Trilling, in service of a “perfect criticism of ideas.” Rose, in particular, characterizes the comrades responsible for expelling her as “drones,” “slaves of Party groupspeak,” and as beholden to the “concrete of dogma.” The problem here is not that these specific charges of Rose are unfair—they are indubitably correct; but we are never given compelling access to countervailing subjective moments sufficient to explain why Rose is even a communist in the first place.

Consider, by contrast, the second half of Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy (1945), which is pointedly entitled “The Horror and the Glory.” The phrase encapsulates both extremes of Wright’s experience with the Communist Party. But in the case of Dissident Gardens, while Mr. Lethem most assuredly portrays the “horror”—not to mention the tedium, the preening, and the small-minded idiocy—of the Communist Party and other sectors of the Left, he never convincingly conveys the “glory” animating the same groups.

Trilling, as well, was a liberal political theorist unfriendly to political radicalism of any stripe. Nevertheless, he insisted the properly moral realist novel present its politically radical characters not only “in their ambiguity and error,” but also “in their pride and beauty.” For this reason, Trilling gave signal praise to Henry James for his complex characterization of anarchists in The Princess Casamassima (1886). James successfully exhibited, Trilling argued, the nobility and magnetism of their ideas without at all shying away from depicting what he saw as the destructive consequences, both personal and political, of those same ideas. James was a great novelist, Trilling declared, precisely because he supplemented the “imagination of disaster” with the “imagination of love.”

It’s true that Dissident Gardens basks in its own form of the “imagination of love.” Rose and Miriam—superhuman agents, conduits for world-historical passions—embody a love they seek to propagate across city and world. For instance, Mr. Lethem describes the act for which Rose is expelled from the Party as a “radicalism, a freer love” than what her fellow communist functionaries could possibly imagine. Yet love also emerges in Dissident Gardens solely as an extra-intellectual desire, a force of nature welling up from within the soul against the pettiness of ideology, Party, or reason. This is very different from the “imagination of love” envisioned by Trilling and attributed to James—which did not so much repudiate the inconvenient tyranny of ideas altogether as seek to understand the moments of heavenly illumination they could provide in a darkening world.

Dissident Gardens, then, is a failure qua political novel—at least if we are to evaluate its contribution to the genre according to the standard argued by Trilling. The insoluble cleavage between ideas and their “appropriate actuality” in Dissident Gardens not only hinders the novel as a criticism of ideas, but also trips up the attempt even to present a coherent life-world in itself, rendering it ungainly and flat—desolate in the midst of plenty. The lack of moral imagination in Dissident Gardens dovetails with the general failure in Mr. Lethem to truly consummate the mixed genres to which he so consistently resorts, to endow them with unity, purpose, or a deep meaning. We are simply left with a collection of novelistic elements in search of a novel, exquisite objects in a still life, natura morta.

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