I struggled quite a bit with Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, which is odd considering I’m probably Lethem’s target audience: a Jewish male in my mid-40s, a Hebrew school graduate and a fan of Lethem’s previous work (most notably, Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 1999).
Lethem writes passionately about so many things in this novel (Doubleday, $28)—politics, religion, race, popular culture—but reading Dissident Gardens was a bit of a chore. While there are many long, well-written passages and whole chapters filled with amusing characters and situations, I never really bonded with this book, and I felt guilty for not liking it more.
Dissident Gardens is an ambitious, multigenerational novel, spanning the 1930s to the present day. Rose Angrush Zimmer is devoted to Communism, Abraham Lincoln and speaking her mind. The novel opens in 1955, as Rose is confronted by Communist Party members in New York who disapprove of her affair with Douglas Lookins, an African-American police lieutenant. Lethem skips back and forth through time, but readers quickly learn that Rose’s husband, Albert, was sent back to East Germany to spy and file reports, and Rose—an uncompromising intellectual—was left to raise their daughter, Miriam. Coming of age in the 1960s, Miriam is just as opinionated and strong-willed as her mother. Eventually, she marries a folk singer, Tommy Gogan, and their son, Sergius, grows up in a commune-like environment with protest songs instead of lullabies. Other prominent characters include Cicero Lookins, Douglas’ gay, heavyset son, who Rose tries to influence and inspire, and Rose’s cousin Lenny, a fairly persistent presence in the Zimmer household.
New York—specifically Queens and Greenwich Village—plays a significant role in the narrative, along with baseball, the music of Dylan and Donovan, Yiddish, and the video games Frogger and Time Pilot. Lethem includes more pop-cultural references in his work than most writers, which means he’s not afraid to briefly reference Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land or build a whole chapter around The Who, What or Where Game, a quiz show that ran from 1969-74. There’s also a subplot featuring Rose that demonstrates Lethem’s deep understanding of Archie Bunker and All in the Family.
Ultimately, I found Dissident Gardens a little too ambitious, a little too sprawling. Lethem drew inspiration from his own family for the characters of Rose and Miriam, which might have made editing difficult. Jewish mothers are frequently accused of crowding a dinner plate with more food than one can possibly eat, but novelists must exercise caution. With Dissident Gardens, Lethem has offered readers too much to gnaw on, more writing than most readers can swallow or digest. ★★★☆☆