Friday, August 2, 2013

Jonathan Lethem's "Dissident Gardens": Book Review

Radicalism rattles three generations in New York. Dissident Gardens dramatizes this disruption. Rose Angrush, her lover’s son Cicero Lookins, and her half-Irish grandson Sergius Gogan, when pushed far enough, fight conformity. How long they can stand their ground?

Rose lives in the Sunnyside Gardens housing project in Queens, in the decades when Reds were hunted.  In turn, Reds hunted those deviating from the Stalinist party line. Ostracized for not only her political stance but her affair with a married black policeman, Rose broods after the policeman leaves her and his son Cicero matures. Unhappily married to her own husband, Albert Zimmer, Rose bristles. She resents their daughter Miriam. Her late beatnik-early hippie days in Greenwich Village unfold as she and her husband, Irish folksinger Tommy Gogan, watch the Beats ebb and Bob Dylan rise. Their son, Sergius, will grow up to witness the 2011 advent of the Occupy Movement, as embodied in one girl half his age, in a tiny sit-in at Cicero’s own college town in coastal Maine.

Jonathan Lethem's family saga recalls Saul Bellow or Philip Roth’s urban intellectuals battling Jewish angst.  Fewer protagonists in Bellow or Roth, however, held out so long against capitalism. Embodied by Rose, her headstrong affirmation of an idealized communism which never happened leaves her adrift in the later part of the last century. Lethem’s characters reject their faith and traditions. They all pursue progressive causes. The Old Country offers no solace; neither does any affinity with a Chosen People. Whatever binds Rose, from a background in the ghettos and villages of the featureless Pale of Settlement, to Albert with his urbane German Jewish upbringing, remains attenuated and brief.

Filtered through the indirect, omniscient voice which dominates Dissident Gardens, Rose reflects on her marital and ideological discord: "Unlike every comedy ever devised by Jewish writers mocking class difference from the sanctuary of Hollywood, these were divisions that exactly couldn't be closed by the bonds of love. This wasn't ‘screwball, it was 'you're screwed.' Not It Happened One Night, but It Happened Never."

Assimilated vs. shtetl Jews, allegiance to Communist purity vs. hero worship of Honest Abe or Uncle Joe, Irish, African-American, and bohemian diversification of an American lineage: these tensions provide rich material for Lethem. Yet, this account betrays an awkward voice. For instance, "these were divisions that exactly 'couldn't' be closed by the bonds of love" may retain Rose's irritable opposition, but that stilted phrase sounds at odds with her earthy, frank personality. Lethem inserts his narrative voice into her silent reflections on her tetchy marriage, but Rose remains a brittle, grumbling protagonist. Her prickly, ornery self, until old age alters her wits, keeps her a dire, forbidding materfamilias.

Albert and Rose's similarly stubborn offspring Miriam; her partner and erstwhile Dylan rival Tommy Gogan; their drifting son Sergius; Rose's wayward nephew Lenny (short for Lenin); cranky, obese, and gay Cicero: all fight the power as America snoops on dissenters from WWII, through the Cold War and counterculture, then up around the East Coast, ten years after 9/11.

Letters by Rose and Miriam to Albert in East Germany and a quiz show transcript from contestant Miriam offer a bit of variety in prose and diction, given Lethem’s tendency to sustain an epic narrative style which elides distinctions for many key characters. It also grinds down much in a sprawling plot. That roams widely and at whim. In retrospect, its highlights linger longer than its addled protagonists. At his best, Lethem sharpens his gaze as he peers around the teeming streets he creates, so he can penetrate the hard heads of his blunt characters.

Tommy Gogan tries to break free of a Clancy Brothers-type of musical bond with his clan. Emboldened by his love of Miriam, he fears the leap away from his siblings will leave him, a solo artist with only one LP in him, having to compete with a rising folksinger in from Minnesota, who sparks a buzz in their beatnik neighborhood. Tommy predicts to himself his recorded fate: “A second album will never exist and Verve Records wants free of the contract and are willing to front you a suicide room at the Chelsea to be shed of you.”

That album fails, sunk by a review. At twenty-seven, Tommy observes with detachment both his own irrelevance and Bob Dylan’s electrification. “Dylan, having shrunken a whole world to his sole person, was terrified by the isolation.” Instead of fame, Tommy chooses activism, and with Miriam, they march on into radical causes, long past the Sixties. They tempt fate. So will their son, Sergius.  In their tales, as the energy of the era matches the passion of the characters, the novel succeeds.

Lethem invents affectionate scenes, often within his native city. Dylan’s arrival at MacDougal Street complements the Mets' arrival soon after at Shea Stadium. A figure nicknamed “The Last Communist” flees by subway from a conspiracy he may or may not have conjured up. Sergius’ anarchic quasi-Quaker school and Cicero’s tony, vapid Baginstaff College spur Lethem to sharpen his sly wit. Rose entertains visits from an imaginary Archie Bunker, which overlap with her lifelong veneration of Abe Lincoln. From East Germany, Albert documents the Allied bombing of Dresden. Other characters will blunder into an imminent Sandinista triumph.

Yet, nearly every character bent on reform suffers from self-righteousness. Impassioned speechifying veers into sit-com parody. Ambitions beginning wryly or in a quirky manner soon wind up for most protagonists and antagonists (interchangeable in many cases) as humiliating. 

Lethem may aim at social critique. Yet some set-pieces can feel rickety. Rose is called a “ziggurat”: so feared is her towering presence by so many. A symbolic scene when she puts her own head in the household oven to try to win an argument against teenaged Miriam lingers, but more as an author’s labored contrivance than a powerful vignette.

However, most of these earnest radicals earn sympathy more than satire by trying to better each other, and us. Rose laments to Cicero, who she mistakes in her dotage for Albert: “Capitalism wouldn’t get out of the way. We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t begin to exist. It filled all available space.” That’s about as incisive as this narrative gets regarding the failure of alternatives to the present economic and political system. Lethem shifts any sustained discussion of ideology off-stage; he brings in casual asides and bitter (or parroted) comebacks. 

Lethem attempts to join the novel of critique with the novel of ideas. Characters think too much or act too quickly. Then, trapped by machinations, they find themselves too compromised to escape or outwit their many foes. Zimmers, Angrushes, Gogans, and their progressive comrades fumble. But they try to "speak truth" to power--and to themselves. This dogged impulse to argue and agitate for a better world, transmitted by nature over three generations or by nurture in “red diaper” nurseries, nags at these impetuous New Yorkers.(Amazon US 7-29-13; revised as above for PopMatters 10-9-13)

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