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An American family, disillusioned with America

September 9, 2013 GMT

Dissident Gardens (Doubleday), by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, “Dissident Gardens,” is a tour de force, a brilliant, satiric journey through America’s dissident history from 1930s-era communism to today’s Occupy movement.

Its central character is Rose Zimmer, a staunch member of the American Communist Party whose affair with a black policeman draws the wrath of party apparatchiks. After getting booted from the party, she turns her energy to community organizing in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, a housing development built in the 1920s to provide well-designed, affordable apartments with communal gardens to the urban working class.

Rose’s only child, Miriam, rebels against her mother’s forbidding, even ferocious personality, installing herself in an East Village commune where she gets stoned every day and organizes Yippie-style protests — until she and her Irish folk singing husband are killed in Nicaragua.

The Zimmers’ rebellious DNA lives on in Miriam’s son, Sergius, whose ostensible search for his roots provides the narrative framework for the novel. Sergius has no clear-cut politics, just an abiding love of music and pacifism, honed at the Quaker boarding school where he’s sent at age 8, orphaned by his parents’ naive faith in the Sandinistas.

Lethem might say, as one character does: “The problem with all utopian ideologies is they pit themselves against the tyranny of the bourgeois family, and ... it’s basically hopeless. The deep fate of each human is to begin with their mother and father as the whole of reality, and to have to forge a journey to break into the wider world.”

Lethem’s clearly spent a great deal of time researching American communism, yet his political and sociological interests never overshadow the moving family drama that unfolds against the glittering and seedy backdrop of New York City. Lethem revels in the city’s historic neighborhoods and its rich trove of voices, riffing with great facility on black, Irish and Yiddish inflections.

At times, though, his encyclopedic grasp of his material comes off as pedantic. His prose can be a bit of a slog, with baroque metaphors and tortured syntax. “When Rose laughed up her sleeve, the sleeve was the Twentieth Century. You were living in her sleeve.” Or: “The trouble with his rant was that time, like a grape blistered by the sun, seemed to Cicero to peel away its organizing skin during the interval of his delivery.” But it’s worth soldiering through the stylistic excesses. All in all, he delivers a virtuoso performance.