Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday • $27.95 • ISBN 9780385534932
published September 10, 2013
I've always loved Jonathan Lethem's books for their energy, the feeling that the author is having a really good time slamming the reader with wit and satire. Lethem's newest novel, Dissident Gardens, is a brilliant ride through American Communism and radical American politics from the '30s to present day.
The entire story—and, so it seems, the entire modern history of American politics—revolves around one woman, Rose Zimmer, the "Red Queen" of Sunnyside, Queens. Ousted from the American Communist Party in 1955 for sleeping with a black cop, Rose lords her superior sense of self and her infallible Communist convictions over everyone. Everyone includes her daughter, Miriam, equally passionate but desperate to escape her mother's grasp; Rose's nephew; Rose's black lover's son, Cicero; Miriam's son, Sergius; and several others.
Read my review of Dissident Gardens, and then read on for an excerpt, when Sergius (Rose's grandson) and Cicero (Rose's lover's son) talk about Rose while floating in the sea:
"I hate her," blurted Cicero's smoldering charcoal of a head.
"She's dead." Sergius spoke as if he thought Cicero had led them this distance to sea for fear Rose would overhear them on the shore, and he wanted to reassure Cicero this was impossible.
"You were with her to the end."
With her? The word, however seemingly neutral, suggested a certain agency. Cicero'd known people who'd been with Rose Zimmer, notably his own father, a choice Cicero might never forgive. Cicero himself was under Rose and endured Rose. With Rose in the sense that the earth was with its weather.
And that was when Cicero heard himself begin to rant.
"It isn't just me, Sergius. All Sunnyside hated Rose. No one could confront her in the smallest regard except your mother. But your mother's confrontations died in Rose's silences, they died before the receiver was back in its cradle. Meeting her as a defenseless child, my tongue was bitten to pieces before I understood it was for speaking. I had to get away to learn to open my mouth, yet if she was in front of me now I'd probably fail to speak truth to power. For don't kid yourself, Rose was all about power. The power of resentment, of guilt, of unwritten injunctions against everything, against life itself. Rose was into death, Sergius! That's what she dug about Lincoln, though she'd never admit it. He emancipated our black asses and died! Rose championed freedom only with a side-order of death. In Rose's heart she was a tundra wolf, a Darwin creature, surviving on treachery and scraps. Every room contained enemies, every home was half spies, or more than half. If you mentioned a name she'd never heard, she'd rattle out like a Gatlingun: 'Who?' Meaning, if they were valuable to know, why weren't they already part of her operation? If they weren't, why trust them? Why even mention them? She wanted to free the world, but she enslaved any motherf__er she got in her clutches. Now go back to Philly and write yourself a song cycle about that."
Dissident Gardens came out yesterday, and I recommend checking it out. What are you reading today?