Saturday, September 28, 2013

*Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday, 2013
384 pp

"To be, unlike Rose, married to her last instant to the first and only man who'd had her.  Yet at the same time to discover, as did Rose, but to bear the knowledge more capably, that every cell is infiltrated in the end." 

Dissident Gardens has definitely earned a place on this year's list of my favorite books.  Not that I got every single subtlety or nuance in this novel -- I'm sure I missed a lot -- but I do love irony, and this book is filled with it.  I spent a long time on this novel, reading incredibly slowly to get the most out of it that my casual reader self is capable of,  and I was hooked from page one.  I'll say this up front:  it's not a novel complete with traditional plot or a story that moves cleanly through linear time/space, so if the lack of the normal doesn't do it for you, you'll probably want to pass. For me, it's all about the characters, the ideas, and the writing.  And I absolutely loved it.

Just very briefly, because this book is so difficult to summarize and because it's a book a person should really read for themselves, the novel examines three generations of the family and the legacy of Rose Angrush Zimmer,  Jewish, single mom, community-minded activist and ardent Communist, the consummate “Party-made New Woman, unforgiving in her nature and intoxicating in her demands, her abrupt swerves and violent exclusions.” It spans several decades, moving through the history of various radical movements and changing faces of ideologies, all the while building on each generation, their worldviews and their reactions to what's happening in their world. It's also a novel examining relationships, especially, but definitely not limited to,  the one  between Rose and her daughter Miriam.   There are three generations at the heart of this book, but it is also peopled with a variety of other colorful characters.

Rose Zimmer, who at the beginning of the novel is being tossed out of the Communist Party for having slept with a black detective who lives in her neighborhood of Sunnyside Gardens,  is the mother of Miriam, who quits college and Rose after discovering the Greenwich Village scene at seventeen.  She's also an activist in her own right, tries hard "not-to-be-Rose," but
 "mothered in disappointment, in embittered moderation, in the stifling of unreasonable expectations, in second-generation cynicism towards collapsed gleaming visions of the future, the morose detachment of the suburbs, Miriam was in fact a Bolshevik of the five senses.  Her whole body demanded revolution and gleaming cities in which revolution could be played out, her whole character screamed to see high towers raised up and destroyed." 

While Miriam tries to do her own thing, she's still deep down very much Rose's daughter; she also loves her. It's an odd relationship -- she hates Rose, yet she loves her, for example, in
  “the ceaseless arrangement of mother and daughter coiled in fury at each other yet still bulwarked together inside this apartment against the prospect of anything and anyone else outside.”

Miriam marries Tommy Gogan, a staunch pacifist and Irish folk singer who with his brothers plays the club scene; she changes his life when she convinces him that he needs to go solo and write more political songs, starting with catching the life stories of the downtrodden in his music.  Together they live in a commune housed in a brownstone, participate all the sit-ins, boycotts and protests of their era, and have a son, Sergius, who they send to a Quaker school in Pennsylvania where he lives a more quiet life and learns the guitar.  His birthright, as the author notes, is "full hippie and half secular Jew." When Sergius is older, he looks to Cicero Lookins, a protégé of Rose, a "child-prisoner of her stewardship,"  who is trying to exorcise her from his mind as well, a college professor and son of the black policeman Rose had slept with in the 1950s. Sergius wants to connect with his now-dead mother, whom he last saw as a little boy,  by trying to find out about her from people who knew her.  Woven in and out of their stories are the stories of others in their respective orbits, as well as a look at a New York City over the decades.

Dissident Gardens is a story of  ideologies, revolutionaries and radicals and the disappointments they often bring, held fast by some while often collapsing in the bigger scheme into dreaded anachronism as the world moves on,  and it's a story about a family matriarch and how a piece of herself and her legacy, even if unwanted,  continues through each succeeding generation and in the lives of others she's touched.  I absolutely loved this book, and from a casual reader's perspective, the only negative thing I really have to say about it is that while I enjoyed how the author just lets loose sometimes and allows his characters their respective spaces to muse and ponder, sometimes these parts get boggy and detract from the topic at hand.  Otherwise, this is truly one of the best novels I've read this year.  I loved the characters, the ideological backdrop, the mother-daughter struggles, but most especially I loved watching the movement of history and change.  There's so much in this book that as I noted, it's difficult to summarize or to even provide a feel for what you might expect here - so it's a book best experienced rather than read about.  It's also a novel that is getting mixed reviews -- but a review, no matter who writes it, is a matter of opinion, and mine is that it is most incredible. Highly recommended.

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