Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens

Jonathan Lethem. Dissident Gardens: A Novel. Doubleday, 2013.

One of my favorite Jonathan Lethem books was his 1997 novel As She Climbed Across the Table. This is a great comic novel of academia. The main character refers to himself as Mr. Interdisciplinary and his girlfriend, a physicist, falls in love with the lack she and her colleagues have created in the lab (the "she" that crawls across the table...into the lack). I bring this up, because this novel is rarely listed in the blurbs on the backs of Lethem novels that extol Lethem's literary prowess [Wait -- it is mentioned in his biographical blurb on the back flap!]. One of my best friends, someone with his own brand of literary prowess, recommended this 1997 gem to me and it remains at the top of my favorites ... so check it out. I'm talking myself into reading it again.

But, this isn't a review of an academic lack, this is a review of Dissident Gardens--something very far from the light and easy Table. This novel requires some attention and thought and probably some re-reading--but don't let this dissuade you--it also rewards this same attention and thought.  Do you like to have something to think about and ponder? Dissident Gardens provides a picture of post war (World War II) America from the perspective of New York City and the American Communist Party--or at least a few of its most devoted. [And before I'm done I have to say something about Inside Llewyn Davis (the film) and Dawn Powell's Golden Spur, and Philadelphia in fiction.]

This novel deserves a visualization. It would start with Rose Angrush Zimmer at the top, the matriarch, conscience, and avenging angel of Sunnyside Gardens. The novel opens with Rose's ejection from the local Communist Party cell. As the novel progresses, it is clear that Rose may be the one true remaining Communist in the American Communist Party with her daughter Miriam and her nephew Lenny who were brought into the fold by Rose willingly or not, both of whom come to separate but early and tragic deaths. Lethem is all about character in this novel. Rose haunts everyone--driving them away with her intensity and her bordering-on-crazy single-mindedness. She is the constant in this novel that spans decades, but remains geographically centered in Queens and Manhattan, with diversions to Philly and rural Pennsylvania, Germany and Nicaragua.

Back to the visualization: Rose's daughter Miriam is next in line (by my estimation) in importance. Her father, Albert, also a Communist, leaves Rose and baby Miriam to do the work of the party in Germany. Later, we learn something about Albert in the letters that he writes to Miriam after she re-establish contact with her long absent father. Miriam has all the iron will and determination of her mother, forged through her constant rebellion against Rose's authority. She marries at a young age, Tommy Gogan, one of the Gogan Boys, who together and apart, garner moderate fame during the NYC folk revival. Miriam and Tommy bring Sergius into the world, and Sergius spends most of his childhood and young adult years at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania following the death of both of his parents in the jungles of Nicaragua.

So, we have Rose and Miriam, Albert a bit off to the left, Tommy and Sergius a little below and to the right of Miriam. Now a little to the left and below Rose, we have the American Communist Party and Douglas Lookins, Rose's African American cop lover. Her affair with Lookins catapults her out of the party--is it because he is a cop? is it because he is Black? Either way, the American Communist Party is wrong and Rose is right. His son Cicero becomes Rose's protege. Under her vise-like tutelage, Cicero rises to the top of schools and scholarship competitions to land at Princeton, and then, ultimately, as a professor at a small liberal arts school in Maine. Cicero, like Miriam, does not know whether to love or hate Rose, to be grateful for the direction in which she rocket launched him, or to resent her powerful grip.

Archie Bunker is another of Rose's lovers and it is up to you, the reader, to decide whether he is a flesh and blood man who in every way resembles Archie Bunker, or an entity existing only in Rose's mind. Not least among the characters, and perhaps the most tragic of all the characters, for being the most lovable and the most unlovable a the same time, is Lenny Angrush, a brilliant chess player, expert in numismatics, devoted Communist and man of the people, baseball fan, and hopelessly, tragically in love with his younger cousin Miriam. Lenny's judgment fails him and puts him in the way of the blood thirsty, almost evaporated into thin air.

There you have the beginnings of a visualization and yet you still know so little of this novel. Each character has their own tragic center. Rose tenaciously holding onto everything even as she loses everything and everyone who has ever been important to her. Cicero, not her own child, is the last living member of her circle to remember and care for Rose. Cicero is himself an orphan, with Rose being his only connection to family as he is hers. After her death, she continues to be very much part of his burden of memory. Sergius also survives Rose, but of all the Angrush's he is the only one to be mostly untouched by Rose. Orphaned at 8, he is prevented from being taken under Rose's wing by his a letter that his mother posts to her friend Stella Kim and that arrives posthumously. Sergius barely remembers his parents having worked to forget them and the brief period in which his life overlapped with theirs. Miriam, Rose's only child, is driven by her love-hate relationship with her mother and mirrors her mother's tenacious need to control and mold. Miriam embodies the peace and non-violent movements of the 60s. She and Tommy leave Sergius in the hands of the Pennsylvania Quakers as they seek to kindle their folk sensibilities within the Nicaraguan revolution.

Here I have to digress. While reading Dissident Gardens, I took a short break and read Dawn Powell's Golden Spur. In her novel, the Golden Spur is a bar frequented by artists. This is in the 50s. By the time of Lethem's narrative, the Golden Spur is a home to the folk movement. This is the same early, pre-Dylan era that is portrayed in  the film "Inside Llewyn Davis." Interesting that this novel and film should come out so closely together. Powell's novel was written in the 50s, so the only coincidence is that I read it at the same time that I was reading Dissident Gardens and viewing Inside Llewyn Davis. In Tommy Gogan's portion of the novel, Lethem has Tommy thinking about his place among the folks as Bob Dylan takes over the stage and the air waives:  "He was disgruntled less on his own behalf than on that of Van Ronk, Clayton, so many others, all swallowed and disgorged, all eclipsed, all savaged by the splenetic fusillade pouring from the radio . . . to think yourself defined, however cursory one's own talent, by immersion in a collective voicing deeper than that of which any sole practitioner could be capable, and then to have every third remark be did you ever open for Dylan, did you ever meet Dylan, was Dylan there is Dylan coming was it like Dylan I think I saw Dylan he's a second rate Dylan...." Tommy finds his last inspiration far away from Dylan with first love and muse Miriam in Nicaragua.

Tommy and Miriam's trip to Nicaragua leaves Sergius to reinvent himself. He, the most distant from Rose, and the least affected by her often cruel intensity, brings the novel to a close. Trying to reconnect himself with the ghosts of his family, Sergius seeks out Cicero, a meeting that does neither one of them any good. As the novel ends, Sergius is making taking a personal stand against Homeland Security in a nondescript room in a nondescript airport in Maine.

More about Jonathan Lethem.

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