Jonathan Lethem has treaded the sidewalks of his childhood neighborhood in New York in several of his novels, including Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. With the epic Dissident Gardens, Lethem remains within the realm of New York borough fiction, but turns his merciless humor and judgment to the fall of American Communism and the search for the “new” American political ideal.
Spanning a complex history from Communist discussions in 1930s parlor rooms to the Civil Rights movement and beyond, Dissident Gardens hinges on tyrannical matriarch Rose Zimmer. She is the Last Communist, the “Red Queen” of Sunnyside Gardens, who is ousted from the party in 1955 for taking a black cop as a lover, but continues to impress her ideals upon everyone within range. Her daughter, Miriam, attempts to escape to Greenwich Village and goes searching for her German Jewish father. Miriam’s son, Sergius, scrabbles for some sense of his grandmother. Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s black cop lover, becomes Rose’s greatest beneficiary as a “black brain” in academia. Others who cannot escape Rose’s grasp include cousin Lenny Angrush, named for Lenin, and Tommy Gogan, Miriam’s phony folk-singing husband.
As the novel moves back and forth through time, generations remain mired in the legacy of the Party and Rose’s efforts to keep “the intellectual apparatus alive.” In a lecture to a class, Cicero says, “The deep fate of each human is to begin with their mother and father as the whole of reality, and to have to forge a journey to break into the wider world.” Rose is the whole of reality, even to those who can claim no familial obligation. She is the icon to rally against, the impetus to self-definition, so each of these characters does his or her best to leave her behind, but Rose’s influence is not limited by distance or time.
This is a beautifully constructed, highly complex story of social realism and the transformation of radical American politics, but it is also a hilarious satire and a sympathetic portrayal of family. Dissident Gardens is one of Lethem’s finest, most ambitious works to date.