Friday, 7 March 2014

Dissident Gardens

Dissident Gardens - Jonathan Lethem

I felt strangely ambivalent about this book while reading it, initial trepidation turning into admiration but always tempered by a feeling that the book had arisen from the unholy union of a host of Sunday Magazine articles and an accessible, hip course of lectures on Critical Theory. It seems almost unbearably bourgeoise, an Upper Middle Class embrace of sexual, racial and political dissidents and sympathy for their tragic fates.

It is a book full of characteristics but without really convincing characters, full of speech but devoid of a voice. Not that I find these insurmountable problems, many books are brilliantly fake, but it feels at times like this book aims to be either realist family saga and metafictional gloss on family sagas but falls a little between the stools.  However, despite these failings there is still much to enjoy here.

There are a large number of characters, most dominated in one way or another by matriarch, communist, Jew and community organiser Rose Zimmer. She marries fellow communist Albert, a German Jew with the emphasis on German, who leaves her for East Germany at the behest of the Party. They have one daughter, Miriam; activist, hippie and earth mother. The locations range from New York to Dresden to the mountains of Nicaragua.

The book opens with a retrospective account of Rose Zimmer's expulsion from the Communist Party, which she sees as being the result of her ongoing affair with a married, black policeman. One of the men who come to her flat to tell her is an old flame of hers and he is "the only one among them man enough not to meet her eye, the only to grasp anything of the shame of it." We soon find out that Rose's ex-husband, and father of her daughter Miriam was also expelled at a meeting years before, not from the party but from the US. A German / Jew who was, it seemed, more German than Jew Albert was sent to East Germany where it was felt that his aristocratic German-ness would contribute to his effectiveness while it was a problem in New York.

This left Miriam essentially fatherless and she was almost totally at the mercy of Rose's proselytising influence. The only other was her Grandmother, Albert's mother, who also exuded German-ness and ate German food and chocolate and was proud of having lived beside the Buddenbrooks house of Thomas Mann's family saga. Indeed addresses seem as much the characters in this book as the people. Dissident Gardens itself is the name of the campus/open prison that Albert ends up in in East Germany, where he will research the atrocities suffered by the German people during WW2, in particular the bombing of Dresden.

It is balanced by Sunnyside Gardens, where Rose lives, an experimental Garden City from the '20's and which is a hotbed of communism, at least until Khruskev tells the truth about Stalin and communism in America becomes even less popular. The East German Dissident Gardens are officially named after Rosa Luxemburg who it is tempting to view as an inspiration for the character of Rose. Certainly Rose's belief in grass roots organisation above theory chimes with Luxemburg's beliefs.

Further characters include:
Lenny Angrush - Miriam's chess, coin and Miriam obsessed cousin who is the closest the novel comes to having a consciousness that breaks through into a compelling voice;
Cicero Lookins - black; gay; obese: son of Rose's black cop lover and his wife, now Professor of (I think) Critical Theory;
Miriam's husband Tommy Gogan, of The Gogan Brothers, a Northern-Irish folk trio with echoes of The Clancy Brothers. Tommy leaves the group in an attempt to find an authentic voice and get away from the perceived naffness of the material the brothers specialise in; "What was corny in 1956 when Peter and Rye (Gogan) walked into my office was nonetheless the good kind of 1956 corny - Eisenhower exotica. Ireland was  as bohemian as anyone could stand at the time. In 1960 Ireland was as hip as a crutch."
Sergius Gogan -  Miriam and Tommy's son who is largely raised in a Quaker school and becomes a musician, hooking up through one of his father's songs with a girl who is a member of the Occupy movement, making them a reflection of his parents.

There are all sorts of reflections, and there is a journey, like the life of Pete Seeger, from the popular front of the 30's to the Occupy movement, taking in the communist party, the Sandinistas and other protest movements. It is a Frankenstein of a novel, with limbs and organs dug from the ink stained, static crazed graves of twentieth century memory but one which never quite gets struck by the electric bolt that gives life to Mary Shelley's patchwork corpse. There is a sense that inauthenticity may be deliberate: Lenny gets killed for selling false coin, Cicero talks of 'affect' in his lecture and suggests that real emotions are not easy to express, Rose has delusions of an affair with Archie Bunker; Miriam reads astrological charts etc At one point we are treated to a number of letters from Miriam's Dad in 'Dissident Gardens' to Miriam and this section ends with a note on how the letters were retrieved from police files, in what must rank as a parody of the 'realist' storytelling stances of novels such as Don Quixote as at other points we are taken into the unknowable consciousnesses of characters facing death. But referring to the flaws in a novel, even splicing them into the book's DNA, doesn't automatically stop them being flaws. In the end I feel that though broad in reference and ambition Dissident Gardens seems cramped in its achievement.


  1. I read Dissident Gardens earlier this year and just couldn't seem to coalesce any real thoughts about it except that I wasn't happy with the book at all. I think you've really hit on it with "It is a book full of characteristics but without really convincing characters, full of speech but devoid of a voice." I just found it so mannered and busy throwing things at me that I could kind of appreciate it, but I couldn't enjoy it.

    Have you read other books by Lethem? The only one I've read is Motherless Brooklyn, and I really liked it. I'm planning to give his short stories a try as well.

    1. This was my first book by Lethem but it hasn't put me off trying another, even if it hasn't convinced me that I must. I have a book of his short stories (Men and Cartoons) so I might dip into them.

  2. Good to know that there's something to enjoy here as I already have this one in a pile somewhere. It sounded good--now I see not so authentic? is that a good word to describe the book?

    1. I think that's a fair way of describing my response. It feels like he had all the elements he wanted to put into the book but not the voice with which the book should speak.