I expected to fall in love with this book, but I was disappointed for several reasons. It's too topical, over-written, and tries to tell too many stories. And what it up with that cover? It's the ugliest book jacket ever.
As a boomer, the subject matter and the times are of great interest to me. But recently I'm finding books that try to incorporate every political and social cliché from the last 50 years. I've lived through those decades, and while most of us were influenced by the events, we were not directly touched by every single one of them. Here we meet communists, the Sandinistas, the Occupy movement, the `60's folk music craze, gay people coming out, detention by FTA authorities, East German spies, etc, etc. I had the same problem with "The Interestings" and several other books.
Despite much well-crafted writing, this is yet another book in search of a merciless editor. There are some true gems embedded within the text, and the trick is to find them. At just over 360 pages, "Dissident Gardens" gets bogged down with lots of language and feels like a much longer read.
Of the three generations of radicals whose stories are told, I was only intrigued by the first two, Rose and Miriam. I am very grateful for interesting women. Fortunately, each chapter centers around one of three, and I chose to skim lots of Sergius.
I think "Dissident Gardens" isn't sure which story it wants to tell. I wish authors would decide what they want to focus on, depicting a flavor of an era without cluttering the plot. All the elements of a great book are here. I'd like to just cut it up and paste the best parts back together.
on September 1, 2013
Jonthan Lethem loves New York, ideas, words, and vivid characters in about that order. His new novel tells the story of two unusual women and their men and their times and their children in a loosely spiraling fashion. The story is definitely not told from beginning to end, though the novel does start near the beginning of the story. He conjures up a New York neighborhood of radicals, and a bunch of radicals to populate it. Their odd lives and relations are told elliptically, with information accreting over the chapters as certain mysteries become clearer.
Paragraph by paragraph he's a miracle worker, but I am not sure he achieved his aim in this novel. If you have no tolerance for radicals or of folksingers, you'll hate this. If you want your stories with a direct bang and a lot of compact drama, stop after the first few chapters and spare yourself. But if you want to understand how the legacy of an idealistic movement works on people after the movement has betrayed itself and is over, and on their children, this is for you. Maybe someday Lethem will write about what happened to the hippies and war protesters of the 60s and to their children.
Ultimately, if you have patience and like the sometimes florid narrative style Lethem uses here, and are willing to let some mysteries hang, you'll be rewarded. If you don't mind plenty of what might seem extraneous information and observation, stay the course. Otherwise stay away.
I have enjoyed every novel Lethem has ever written. I was blown away when I first discovered Gun, with Occasional Music in a harvest bin at a local bookstore, and since that novel, I have made a point of getting every new Lethem novel the moment it was available. His genre-bending, his quirky plots, and his vivid prose have only grown in scope and skill over the years, and it's been a treat to watch him age as a writer.
What a disappointment, then, for the first time ever, to have to say that he's lost the plot. Literally.
DISSIDENT GARDENS (eesh, what a clunky title) tells the story of idealism (mostly of the Communist variety) as it waxes, wanes, and morphs through a family over the years. It's a character-driven novel, as very little of any note happens at all, most of the narration spent on describing emotions, hopes, beliefs, and the way life can grind away at your ideals with its stubborn real-world setbacks and provincialism. This might have worked had the characters been more interesting, but there's really not much to these people. They believe in certain things but -- although pages and pages are spent describing these beliefs -- they are rarely very clearly drawn or explained.
That's probably because -- and I can't believe I'm saying this -- the book is overwritten to the point of exhaustion. I can't believe this is the same guy who wrote Motherless Brooklyn or Chronic City. Heck, even The Fortress of Solitude, his most florid work to date, was a sumptuous treat, a narrative that -- while vast and comprehensive -- was still delectable, dripping with vivid scenes, characters, and events. This books, however, is a long, dry, exegesis that still leaves you with almost nothing to really grasp or imagine.
Maybe it would be better if I cared all that much about the book's politics, but being pretty much disillusioned with the world of politics, I can't say I get, empathize, or even care about these people and their hunger for Communism (etc.). Of course, that hunger doesn't seem to have a very visible endpoint. Rose, Miriam, Sergius, Tommy, all of these people desire a certain kind of world, but that kind of world seems vague to the point of being annoying. Maybe that's the point? I don't know. Even if it is, it doesn't make for very good reading.
At one point, a character named Rose must sit and watch her husband, Albert, deliver a speech to a group of Communists in a rural New Jersey enclave. His speech is flowery and inflated, and Rose finds herself annoyed, thinking to herself, "Quit setting the table and put a meal out for them to eat." She rues the fact that her husband's speechifying has no real content, that it is basically just drawn out table dressing.
I felt the same exact way about this book. The writing is so grand and verbose that it seems to think that it is paving the way for a meal fit for a king, but it's really just a lot of fancy finger twiddling. For the first time in my nearly two-decade love affair with Lethem's work, I found myself dreading returning to one of his novels, pushing my way through each chapter and even finding the rare moment of action and interest -- IRA, Nicaragua, even an obsession with Archie Bunker -- just sad punctuation to the inert rest of the book.
by saying I'm an unabashed fan of some, of some, maybe most of Jonathan Lethem's work. In the late nineties, when I came across him, Lethem was a genre busting novelist particularly busting the crime noir genre with Gun, With Occasional Music where evolved animals are commonplace and police monitor citizens' Karma.
As She Climbed Across the Table, my sentimental favorite is a send-up of academia and science fiction. The faculty Christmas party rivals anything in Richard Russo's Straight Man. Girl in Landscape, another personal favorite combined science fiction with western, (John Ford type westerns) and Amnesia Moon is Lethem's riff on post apocalyptic novels.
My overall favorite of all his novels is Motherless Brooklyn. The characters were vivid and developed, the setting is a character and the action is always moving. A main character with Tourette's Syndrome had to be a challenge but Lethem walked a fine line between believability and not allowing the disability to be a main focus. It was like detective with an alcohol problem. I have to admit that I read but was not a fan of Fortress of Solitude. I found it dense and in need of editing. I find the same is true with Dissident Gardens.
This is a hard novel to review because there just is so much packed in to it. I found the novel badly in need of editing. There are too many stories swirling around and they tend to break up the momentum. I didn't need so much about Tommy Gogan especially when I am intrigued by Miriam and her relationship with Rose which I found far more interesting than how she and Tommy met I thought the novel worked best when focused around Rose and Miriam with characters in orbit, not with characters as separate stories altogether
Then there are all these densely packed sentences. Try this one about Rose's black lover: "Her black cop, noble enduring grandson of slavery, starved husband and disgruntled father, Bulge veteran, Eisenhower Republican, six foot-two and near three hundred pounds of moral lumber, of withheld rage and battened sorrow, embodied cypher of American fate stalking Greenpoint Avenue rattling kids off doorsteps and out from where they ganged around parking meters, daring anyone utter a cross-eyed word-the man should have from Rose whatever he required." No doubt it was a fun sentence to write but there are a lot of these.
The novel follows dissidents Rose Zimmer and her daughter Miriam through several decades from the 40's to Miriam and Tommy's son trying to occupy something other than an airport. Secondary characters like Lenny Angrush (and we all know a Lenny who is everyone's older cousin) and Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose's black policeman lover, who becomes a professor (and whose life is heavily Rose influenced) which allows Lethem more fun with academics, are all interesting characters who revolve around Rose and Miriam, but have their own stories. With these characters, Lethem hits the right amount of involvement and interest. It's just that he can go off on tangents...Rose's husband, the lost Albert, the opportunistic dissident Sol Eaglin and so on. There's just so much. The novel flits across a dissident landscape from WWII, Vietnam, Contras, and Occupy Wall Street.
The other thing to keep in mind if you are planning to read this novel and there are very good reasons to read it, is that the chapters are like a Kurt Vonnegut novel and unstuck in time. A reader finds no chronology other than what she or he can keep in mind.
Finally, I read this novel right after reading the Flamethrowers by Roberta Kushner, which is also about dissidents, sort of, but during some of the same time period and found the two uneasy bookends.
In section 14 of one of his greatest poems, L'Esthetique du Mal, Wallace Stevens begins as
"Victor Serge said, 'I followed his argument
With the blank uneasiness which one might feel
In the persence of a logical lunatic.'
He said it of Konstantinov. Revolution
Is the affair of logical lunatics."
This might have been an epigraph for Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Dissident Gardens. It traces the lives of several members of a family focused on (or implicated in) revolution in various ways, and though only one of them might be recognizable to others as a 'lunatic' on the service (Lenny, named after Lenin, as Lenin Angrush), whose lunacy, however, is related more closely to his obsessive attachment to his inaccessible cousin, Miriam, daughter of the central and most committed revolutionary, Rose Angrush Zimmer, dominant and domineering resident of Sunnyside Gardens who is, in the first pages of the novel, deposed from her Party position in the Borough by her "committee," including the perfidious former lover, Sol Eaglin, who lets her understand that her relationship (sexual, with little accompanying emotional commitment) with a black policeman is unacceptable to the Party (this in 1955).
All the above is pretty much revealed in the opening pages of the novel, which provides through flashbacks and leaps forward in time ample opportunity to become acquainted with the mingled personalities of those related to, or involved with, Rose and her husband, Albert (sent back to the People's Republic of Germany by the Party, somewhat to his relief, while Rose and her daughter stayed to be the Red Queen and rebellious offspring if not quite Alice of Sunnyside Gardens), and her Angrush relatives, especially, as well as Miriam's husband, Tommy Gogan, a folksinger hopelessly jealous of Bob Dylan's dominance. The novel covers decades from the late '30s to nearly 2004, with plenty of allusions to important social and political developments during those years.
So far, this might sound like a novel by E.L. Doctorow, but that comparison will not do. Doctorow's approach to such characters and historical events tends to be sympathetic to their thoughts and aspirations, though showing their tragic inability to realize their hopes. Lethem, in this work, takes a very different stance, making the novel radically different from other portrayals of red-diaper babies growing up, labor activists and Popular Front agents trying to build consciousness among working class people, the "rise to success" of younger generations through education and movement into the higher classes, and so on. The portrayal of these persons and events in Lethem's novel comes to us in the voice of an unidentified but very "characterized" narrator. In fact, one of the great mysteries of the novel is the narrator--just who is telling us these stories about these people?--telling us in a jaded, cynical, even contemptuous tone of voice, almost invariably signalling the judgment that these ideas are foolish, these hopes should not be realized because they are worthless, these people are hopelessly self-deceived and blinded by the ideologies or drugs of various kinds or sexual infatuations or religious beliefs(in the case of Sergius, Miriam and Tom's Quaker son)--never letting us forget that these revolutionaries are, in different senses, lunatics.
Lethem's novels (except for Chronic City), have been intelligent, witty, sometimes profound, and very funny. This novel is all of the above, but the relentless undercutting of every character raises questions. No one expects a novel to be "fair and balanced," and no one can expect that a writer is obligated to present his characters as wise and loyal and loving at all times, acting in their own and their community's best interests. Nonetheless, for example: "Miriam and Tommy spoke of causes and protest. Civil rights, Martin Luther King, for whom Tommy and his brothers had warmed up a crowd of Harvard students, and also dedicated an album. Their politics floated in the air, unmoored in theory or party--a cloud politics. Miriam and Tommy were intent on changing the world, and why not, when they themselves were so readily changed?" So this idealistic young couple is to be scorned for being vague about their good intentions, while Rose (and Lenny and Sol and others) have been scorned for being doctrinaire and ideologically rigid. (Rose, however, as the most fully developed character, occasionally shows her disconnection from the doctrine in favor of common sense, but she is also still scorned.) Political commitment leads to foolish and self-defeating activities; love and sexual desire lead to self-destructive and broken relationships; idealism leads to hopeless confusion or metamorphoses into cynical despair.
I am not a reader who wants a nice character to identify with, and I certainly don't expect all characters to be good and noble. My concern here is for the narrative strategy that seems to insist on denigrating all feelings, all motives, all actions of all characters. To what end? I certainly understand that we live in an era of nearly hopeless cynicism about politics at every level, and perhaps that is all that Lethem is saying. But it is an attitude that seems to me new to his work, though it was brewing in Chronic City. Do I recommend this one--yes. It is fascinating and intense and forces serious thought, and it certainly does not offer simple or simple-minded answers. In fact, it offers questions--or the conclusion that maybe Victor Serge, via Wallace Stevens, was right.
on September 23, 2013
I was looking forward to this book. As a child of the old left, I am very curious about a time my parents would never talk about. But this book never gave me a real sense of that or the times I did live through. It's more about many annoying - and not very interesting - people. As others have said - it really needs a good editor.
If you do want to read it, save your money and go to your local public library (assuming they bought it). This book is not worth all the pre-release hype.
on September 30, 2013
I've read two or three other books of Jonathan Lethem that I ver much liked. I found this book flat and boring. I am a native New Yorker and grew up at the same time and similar places as depicted in the book, which usually I find interesting. This was the only good thing about the book. I do not require a book to have characters I like or I morally agree with, but the characters in th e book were trite and boring, which the author beat you over the head with.
Jonathan Lethem's latest novel covers a large stretch of time over three generations in a Queens family. With several viewpoint characters and a timeline that hops backwards and forwards over decades it isn't as cohesive as his earlier work. The disjointed nature doesn't always work, in particular the characters don't all come across as fully fleshed out. The dense prose and detailed backgrounds, while excellent, sometimes crowd out the dialogue and interplay between the characters. Altogether, this makes the novel less accessible than Lethem's prior books. The individual episodes do stand on their own but it is primarily a theme that carries over between them rather than any discrete plot point. Overall, this is an enjoyable if difficult book to get into. Lethem's writing is great but the structure keeps it from being as engrossing as his earlier works.
This sprawling novel covers three generations of "anti-American Americans" - Communists, hippies, and protestors. Its geographical locus is New York City. Its temporal span is from the mid-1930's to 2012 - from the American Communist party in its Stalinist heyday through assorted civil rights movements of the Sixties and Seventies up to the Occupy movement.
Its pivotal characters are representatives from each of the three generations. First, there is Rose Zimmer, nee Angrush, a second generation Brooklyn Jew, who for most of the novel lives in Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. Rose is indomitable, with a brash exterior and slashing tongue, and a deeply buried tender, loving heart. She once was married to Albert Zimmer, who in the late Forties defected from the American Communist party to live in East Germany, and later she takes up with a black policeman and becomes surrogate mother of his son. Second, there is Rose and Albert's daughter, Miriam, who is perhaps even more a vital life force than Rose. Miriam is a savvy, committed social and political activist, who marries an Irish folk-singer turned protest singer, Tom Gogan (nee Gheoghan). In an explanatory letter, Miriam writes her long-absent father: "My identity was New Yorker, and leftist. An anti-American American, which was complicated enough, a role requiring a constant vigilance." And third, there is Sergius Gogan, Miriam and Tom's son, who by the end of the novel is seeking to find out about his mother and his grandmother and, in the process, hooking up with a girl from the Occupy movement.
The novel is about the good and the bad within families and within political movements. In both, there is love and good intentions, but there also is conflict, selfishness, silliness, and stupidity. There are some great scenes, including one between an aging Rose Zimmer and Archie Bunker, in which Lethem's rendering of Bunker is spot-on. And the limning of Rose's descent into dementia is particularly touching.
On the whole, however, DISSIDENT GARDENS didn't really grab me. It surely holds special personal significance for Lethem, whose mother was a Jewish political activist in Brooklyn. But, for me, it does not come close to "Motherless Brooklyn", the only other one of Lethem's novels I have read. Lethem's prose is flamboyant and cascading. However, there is more verbiage than action, and the novel often became tedious. DISSIDENT GARDENS probably would be most appreciated by New Yorkers of a certain age (at least over fifty) and a certain political orientation (liberal, or formerly radical). The ending, by the way, is odd.
on October 27, 2013
my review title says most of it. i was interested the book book because the characters/era/setting were all things i relate to (NY jewish socialist liberal hippie stuff). the characters are realistically drawn, but somehow i couldn't keep reading it. the writing style is dense and the characters' motivations and psychology overly analyzed moment to moment. maybe it would've gotten better further on, but i didn't have the stamina to continue reading it.