If you were to update a list of great first lines from the past 50 years of fiction, great because they so perfectly encapsulate the tone, zeitgeist and thematic jam of a novel, the opener from Dissident Gardens would have to be included.
“Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party” ranks up there with “124 was spiteful,” “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” and, more recently, “Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl,” from Chris Cleave’s Little Bee.
The ultimatum is delivered to Rose Zimmer – the seething, hot magma centre of Jonathan Lethem’s dormant volcano of a novel about disappointed Reds in America – by a “lynch mob” of fellow travellers on a fall evening in 1955. The all-male cabal of party members don’t drop the F-bomb; they say “associations.” The take-no-prisoners voice here is all Rose, civil-rights enthusiast, anti-fascist and lover of Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln: “They meant, of course, the association of her rapidly-aging Jew Communist vagina with the black lieutenant’s sturdy and affectionate penis.”
What Rose’s comrades don’t get is that the transgression, the rebellion, if you will, the affair, is not between Jew and black, but Commie and cop, diligent Red and doughty Republican. The generations-spanning Dissident Gardens is both a chronicle of one politically active Jewish-American family (the patriarch flees Germany, the matriarch flees Brooklyn), and a portrait of the changing face of what constitutes activism in America, from the anti-Nazi workers’ protests to the Occupy Movement. But mostly it’s about love: misguided, misdirected and unpredictable love.
Ideological and race differences are among the thematic echoes here from Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude. There, the protagonist’s mother is an adamant liberal who sends her son to public school – one of three white children in the whole school, she boasts to a friend. Shortly before his mother disappears forever, she gives Dylan some advice: “It’s not too soon for you to know, my profound child, the world is nuttier than a fruitcake. Run if you can’t fight, run and scream fire or rape, be wilder than they are, wear flames in your hair.”
In Dissident Gardens, Rose’s hipster-turned-hippie daughter, the wild-child Miriam, also disappears from her young son’s life, abandoning Sergius not to public school, but to life among a Quaker sect. And, although not technically motherless, Cicero Lookins, a black boy Rose takes on as her “cause,” is another of Lethem’s semi-orphans.
Cicero, who eludes his working-class roots, thanks to Rose, is a bitter, angry (again, thanks to Rose) academic who teaches a course called “Disgust and Proximity” at a college in Maine. He’s one of more than half-a-dozen captivatingly alive characters from whose point of view Dissident Gardens is told, voices of wit, bravado and broken beauty. Cicero (and, in turn, his creator) is refreshingly non-PC: “Being Baginstock College’s miraculous triple token, gay, black, and overweight, Cicero usually relied on his ominous aspect to keep the numbers down in his classes and office hours.”
Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, “sanctified as a leftist social laboratory by Lewis Mumford and Eleanor Roosevelt,” where Rose spends her entire adult life, is just one of two communes in the novel. Miriam lives in a Manhattan communal house with her husband, young son, best friend and various comers and goers.
Communes have made earlier appearances in Lethem’s fiction, most notably in the remarkable story Super Goat Man from the collection Men and Cartoons.The author lived in a Brooklyn commune with his siblings, political-activist mother, who died young, and avant-garde painter father. “The first third of my life was spent at political demonstrations, shouting my lungs hoarse,” Lethem told The Paris Review in 2003. “It was as much a part of my existence as having a holiday off from school. … I was a protester by birthright.” Writers who mine autobiography tend to do so early on in their fiction, but it wasn’t until Fortress of Solitude, his seventh novel, that Lethem went back home.
His trajectory has been a been a genre-defying obstacle course, including speculative noir (Gun, With Occasional Music); sci-fi-tinged academic satire (As She Climbed Across the Table); and futuristic western, an homage to John Ford’s The Searchers (Girl in Landscape), with his cult following swelling in the wake of his award-winning faux-detective caper Motherless Brooklyn. In between Fortress and Dissident Gardens, there have been some superb essay collections and two giddily paranoid novels., including Chronic City, complete with Pynchonesque names: Chase Insteadman, Perkus Tooth. (It will be interesting to see how or if Lethem shakes things up on this year’s Giller Prize jury.)
Lethem didn’t completely abandon his pulp roots in Fortress of Solitude (a ring with superpowers makes an appearance), but he does in Dissident Gardens. With billboard-sized personalities, though, like Miriam Zimmer, Cicero Lookins and Cousin Lenny (named for Lenin), there are superpowers enough in the novel. Especially Rose, in whose “lava of disappointment the ideals of American Communism had gone to die their slow death eternally; Rose would never die precisely because she needed to live forever, a flesh monument, commemorating socialism’s failure as an intimate wound.” The political is the personal, an inversion of the feminist rallying cry, and one that came too late for Rose Zimmer.
Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of Better Living through Plastic Explosives, not a how-to book.