The opening line of Jonathan Lethem’s ninth novel delivers a stark warning of the somewhat indelicate prose that lies ahead. Dissident Gardens is a modern American epic that follows the people involved in the alternative political movements of the last century, from Communist cells in 1950s New York to the Occupy movement. Unfortunately, this particular epic is comprised of sentences straining with the visible effort of their author:
The atmosphere was noon-luminous, heat-immense. The bowl of sky enclosing the two heads scarcely cloud-daubed, blue almost friable where it pressured the rim of pines the swimmers had left behind.
Such issues aside, this is an interesting and intelligent work. There is no real plot; the focus flits back and forth through time, recounting formative moments in the characters’ lives. It follows three generations of one family, but it is Rose Zimmer who forms the novel’s core. Rose rages eloquently against all who fail to meet her idealistic standards, using her “hammer of personality” to abuse and, occasionally, inspire. After being expelled from the Communist Party for her affair with a black policeman she adopts a “dogged community-mindedness”, stalking the streets of Sunnyside Gardens and advising its residents of the errors of their ways. She cannot help herself. As her daughter Miriam observes, “’What, short of obsessional disappointment, has ever lit her fuse?’” Rose features in only a few chapters, but she spends them expounding her aggressive lament for the state of the world and her presence is felt throughout the entire novel.
Miriam, her son Sergius, and Cicero – son of Rose’s policeman lover – revolve helplessly around Rose, and become fascinating through their interactions with her. Miriam is the only person capable of fighting back when Rose is on the rampage, and she ensures that Sergius is rigorously protected from her; but Cicero is particularly interesting. Verging on trite but salvaged by Lethem’s ability to demonstrate his character’s intelligence, he is fat, black, gay and angry. He is angry with Rose – for assuming, uninvited, such a large role in his life; for taking personal pride in his achievements; for overshadowing his own, meek mother – but he is also angry because of Rose. Through coming to know her he comes to understand her world view, and adapts it for his own.
Ideology… the veil of sustaining fiction that drove the world, what people needed to believe. This, Cicero wished to unmask and unmake, to decry and destroy.
Lethem’s skilful characterisation is key to the success of Dissident Gardens. Despite the gnarly language, the people rendered on the page are truly compelling. They exemplify the personal cost of living for a cause. Rose is not easy to be around. Constantly provoked by the inadequacies of others, she drives away all who come near. Cicero is similarly incapable of relating rather than preaching. He luxuriates in the spoils of his financial success, while Rose subsists on tinned sardines; but each perceives a powerful meaning in his own actions. Both place the enforcement of their ideologies above friendship and intimacy. Their motives may differ, but the sense of satisfaction each derives from defiance is the same.
Rose and Cicero are such strong characters that Lethem’s blunt-yet-wordy writing feels appropriate at times; but only at times. It is of course a matter of personal taste. His style is similar to that of the much-admired (but not by me) Philip Roth, and myriad critics have praised the cleverness of his prose. For me, though, the brilliance of Dissident Gardens was sorely diminished by its distractingly try-hard composition.