Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude were two of my favourite reads in the past year. Dissident Gardens is more ambitious, more serious and more intellectual than those two earlier novels. However it disappointed me. Not a huge disappointment because I did really enjoy reading it but found it a bit hit and miss. It’s not without its brilliant moments and there are a couple of fabulously memorable characters – most notably Rose, the matriarch of the novel.

Rose Zimmer is a Jewish communist. She intimidates all and sundry with her fulsome and frustrated rhetoric, her high ideals. Someone for whom winning arguments is almost a matter of life or death. When she begins an affair with a black policeman she is removed from the communist party, not long before the details of Stalin’s purges are made public and the communist party loses credibility. She thus becomes a political outcast without renouncing her political ideals which she now presses on various members of her extended family, most notably her daughter Miriam and her surrogate step-son Cicero. Miriam describes her mother as “a volcano of death”, as “mothering in disappointment, in embittered moderation”. The first brilliant scene is when Miriam has decided it’s time for her to lose her virginity – “the virginity Miriam trailed around with her was an anchor, one she vowed to cast off before dawn”. She’s out with a boy who she is going to let make love to her because “he’s special but not-special enough”. But they can’t find anywhere to have sex so Miriam takes him home in the early hours of the morning. Before much can happen – “he blurted his gloop into her palm” – Rose enters the bedroom and is quickly apoplectic with fury. She wants to call the police. Her melodrama is unrelenting. Eventually she crawls on her hands and knees into the kitchen, turns on the gas and puts her head in the oven, not for one moment relenting in her furious disappointment at her daughter’s behaviour. She’s now hurling out the litany of the disappointments and betrayals she has suffered as a wife, mother and dissident, still with her head in the oven while Miriam stands by. Rose then has a change of heart. She slips out of the oven, wrestles Miriam to the ground and forces her daughter’s head into the oven. It’s a brilliant and hilarious scene in chapter one of the novel and really gets your hopes up.

There are other brilliant chapters – when Miriam and her not very talented folk singer husband go to Nicaragua to support the Sandinistas; Rose in a nursing home with dementia and the final chapter when Miriam’s son is arrested by airport security for having sex in the toilets.

It’s a novel that traces the traction of political opposition and idealism in America from the 1950s up to the present day. The failings for me were that unfortunately not all the characters are anywhere as near so compelling as Rose and yet these less successful characters are given equal airtime. You know that moment when you realise you’re supposed to have a clear idea of who a character is but you don’t have a clue and have to trawl back through the pages in search of clues? Cousin Lenny was that character for me. Suddenly he has a chapter to himself and I don’t know who he is. One problem with this novel is that you could remove a couple of chapters without it having any bearing whatsoever on the novel. This because there’s no plot to speak of. Letham might have written this book chronologically but he then shuffled all the chapters in an order that could easily have been arranged in a different order. I also found it acrobatically overwritten at times. Often he inverts sentence structure (reminding me of late Elizabeth Bowen). What she said I can’t comment on – that kind of thing. So, much that was brilliant but ultimately I didn’t quite feel the love.

johnathan-lethem1

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