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Jonathan Lethem's Big New Novel Actually Isn't Self-Indulgent

Over the summer, I committed a mild act of literary dishonesty. Claiming to have lost my reviewer’s copy of Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, I asked his publicist at Doubleday to send a couple more galleys my way. In truth, my copy of Dissident Gardens was secure, lovingly battered and heavily annotated, but never far from my person. I wanted the additional copies so I could press them into the hands of close family and dear friends, telling them as I did so: “Here, read the year’s best novel.”

Because, you see, Jonathan of Dean St., Brooklyn, has finally grown up. Gone is the juvenilia that marked his latest two major efforts, Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City. Both were ambitious novels, but the ambition struck me as boyish. Fortress, despite its accrued acclaim, I could not finish, growing weary of the references to comic books and ’70s pop music and virginal tokes on joints. I wondered if the vocabulary of Brooklyn had grown confiningly familiar. Lethem crossed the East River for Chronic City—it is set on the Upper East Side—and was dutifully praised, once again, though the novel seemed somewhat derivative of his earlier works. “It’s still sometimes a struggle to see through the sheer haze of pot smoke,” complained The Guardian.

And then, shortly after publishing that novel, Lethem left Brooklyn for California, where he now holds the same Pomona College professorship that was once occupied by David Foster Wallace. Spurning the borough of his youth, he told the Los Angeles Times that Brooklyn had grown “cancerous with novelists.” Those of us who liked to sip Scotch at the Brooklyn Inn and brag about how “this was Lethem’s bar” positively howled.

Well, the West’s famous curative powers have worked their wonders, even if they haven’t yet supplanted his beloved fictional locale. Dissident Gardens opens in 1955 in the planned community of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, “the official Socialist Utopian Village of the outer boroughs,” where the aging communist Rose Zimmer faces opprobrium over an affair with a local black cop, Douglas Lookins. The novel ends, several decades later, in a drab holding room at a Maine airport, where Rose’s grandson, Sergius Gogan, is being questioned by the Transportation Security Administration after its officers spy him having sex with an Occupy Wall Street siren in a bathroom. Between these two events, a taut tightrope stretches over the chasms of personal and national history of late twentieth-century America. Lethem walks it with acrobatic grace, his language dancing to “shallow pockets of woe” and “sincerities faked sincerely,” among many other syntactical felicities. If he stumbled, I missed it. And I usually take cruel delight in not missing such things.

Like all great books—and, yes, I am prepared to brand this a great book—Dissident Gardens resists summary. Very roughly, it is about the radicalization of American Jews in the 1930s and their rightward shift after World War II; the establishment of baseball in Queens, which leads to one of the novel’s truest lines: “fuck the Yankees”; the uncomfortable mixture of race and class (a favorite Lethem topic) in the Dylan-era Village, where Rose’s daughter Miriam and her troubadour husband Tommy shack up before taking a fatal trip to Nicaragua; the state of modern academia, as represented by Cicero Lookins, the son of Douglas who had largely been raised by Rose, groomed by her to attend Princeton, groomed by the lusty fellows on the West Side docks for more visceral pleasures. Also: numismatics, Quakerism, the NYPD, the Bowery, AIDS, the Sandinistas, the Stasi, and one horrifying Halloween parade that involves the Irish mob, a Lincoln costume and an act of incest. All that’s missing, come to think of it, is the Brooklyn of Lethem’s youth.

What unites the disparate plot strands is an unsentimental mourning for the American Left, in its various imperfect iterations. Many a novel has buckled under the weight of political conviction; here, political idealism is precisely balanced with a wacky humor reminiscent of Pynchon, along with a brisk plot that alternates between Rose’s descent into senility, Miriam’s coupling with Tommy in Manhattan, and Sergius visiting Cicero in the present. 

As Rose loses her convictions and her friends, she mirrors the trajectory of an American—and specifically, Jewish—reluctance to see the revolution through. And we all have our revolutions, some personal, some private. Finally, she is at home, watching Archie Bunker ply his carefree racism on the television. As her cousin Lenny tells her, in what I think is supposed to be consolation, “You tried to change conditions for the working class and alter the doomed trajectory of civilization. Your daughter just wants to put LSD in the water supply.” Well, she wanted more than that, but Miriam Zimmer’s demise in the jungles of Nicaragua the hands of a malicious mercenary named Fred the Californian—in a terrific Conradian set piece—suggests she and her husband would have been better off in their Village commune, getting stoned as Tommy strummed “McGeorge Bundy, Not Me.” 

Everyone in Dissident Gardens is lonely, for here Lethem seems to imply that conviction always leads to solitude. That’s the price you pay for giving a shit. This is a plangent book, dark and serious and brooding, set less firmly in Queens than on the “darkling plain” where Matthew Arnold saw “ignorant armies clash by night” as he stood on cliffs of Dover. You can see why Lethem did not want to grow up, to secede his Marvel heroes, to come of age into this. Most everyone here is sad, but none sadder than Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s paramour, who hopped from Queens to Princeton to a professorship at a liberal arts college in Maine. And what for, all that striving? Nothing much, in the end. We find him slumped on the couch of a drafty Maine house, drinking Sauvignon blanc and watching the Mets squander yet another lead. Judge him, Lethem goads us, but also judge yourself.

But maybe not all is lost—Lethem is too much the puer aeturnus for that. Hence the halfway hopeful ending, with Sergius and the blonde, OWS revolutionary fucking—a gentler word would not do justice to their iteration of the act—in his rented car as it speeds down the highway, then again in the airport bathroom, which brings him into the security chamber for questioning. There, he is “severed from the life of the planet yet not aloft … A cell of one, beating like a heart.” Dissident Gardens may not have much in the way of hope. But heart it has in spades.

Alexander Nazaryan is the culture editor of The Atlantic Wire. Follow @alexnazaryan.