An American family, disillusioned with America


| Zoom

(AP) - Dissident Gardens (Doubleday), by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, "Dissident Gardens," is a tour de force, a brilliant, satiric journey through America's dissident history from 1930s-era communism to today's Occupy movement.

Its central character is Rose Zimmer, a staunch member of the American Communist Party whose affair with a black policeman draws the wrath of party apparatchiks. After getting booted from the party, she turns her energy to community organizing in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, a housing development built in the 1920s to provide well-designed, affordable apartments with communal gardens to the urban working class.

Rose's only child, Miriam, rebels against her mother's forbidding, even ferocious personality, installing herself in an East Village commune where she gets stoned every day and organizes Yippie-style protests _ until she and her Irish folk singing husband are killed in Nicaragua.

The Zimmers' rebellious DNA lives on in Miriam's son, Sergius, whose ostensible search for his roots provides the narrative framework for the novel. Sergius has no clear-cut politics, just an abiding love of music and pacifism, honed at the Quaker boarding school where he's sent at age 8, orphaned by his parents' naive faith in the Sandinistas.

Lethem might say, as one character does: "The problem with all utopian ideologies is they pit themselves against the tyranny of the bourgeois family, and ... it's basically hopeless. 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."

Lethem's clearly spent a great deal of time researching American communism, yet his political and sociological interests never overshadow the moving family drama that unfolds against the glittering and seedy backdrop of New York City. Lethem revels in the city's historic neighborhoods and its rich trove of voices, riffing with great facility on black, Irish and Yiddish inflections.

At times, though, his encyclopedic grasp of his material comes off as pedantic. His prose can be a bit of a slog, with baroque metaphors and tortured syntax. "When Rose laughed up her sleeve, the sleeve was the Twentieth Century. You were living in her sleeve." Or: "The trouble with his rant was that time, like a grape blistered by the sun, seemed to Cicero to peel away its organizing skin during the interval of his delivery." But it's worth soldiering through the stylistic excesses. All in all, he delivers a virtuoso performance.

___

Online:

http://jonathanlethem.com/


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Top Stories

  • Bunker Hideout
    Investigation reveals bunker on wanted couple's Yelm property
ATTENTION COMMENTERS: We've changed our comments, but want to keep you in the conversation.
Please login below with your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Disqus account. Existing MyNorthwest account holders will need to create a new Disqus account or use one of the social logins provided below. Thank you.
comments powered by Disqus
Sign up for breaking news e-mail alerts from MyNorthwest.com
In the community
Do you know a student who stands out in the classroom, school and community?
Help make their dreams come true by nominating them for a $1,000 scholarship and a chance to earn a $10,000 Grand Prize. Brought to you by KIRO Radio and Comprehensive Wealth Management.

Do you know an exceptional citizen who has impacted and inspired others?
KIRO Radio and WSECU would like to recognize six oustanding citizens this year. Nominate them to be recognized and to receive a $2,000 charitable grant.