09/09/2013 11:09 am ET

'Dissident Gardens' By Jonathan Lethem: The Book We're Talking About


"Dissident Gardens" by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, $27.95
Published on September 10, 2013

What is it about?
Three generations of failed activists (albeit often apathetic ones) are chronicled in Jonathan Lethem's first attempt at realism, set primarily in Queens, New York. Rose Zimmer's relationship with a black cop gets her booted from the Communist Party; Her lover's son, Cicero Lookins, is a lazy college professor; Rose's biological daughter, Miriam, runs away to a commune in Greenwich Village before joining a poet's revolution in Nicaragua. Lethem fuses the personal and political lives of each character, weaving a compelling tapestry of failed revolutionaries.

Why are we talking about it?
We're always eager to pick of the latest Lethem novel, because we're fans of genre-bending, particularly when it involves sci-fi. This book, however, pleased us in a way the author's previous novels didn't. It spans time and cultures, but remains intimate rather than sprawling. The relatively quiet setting reigns in what could have been a too-loud tale of thwarted idealism. If it weren't for Lethem's incessant cultural references, we'd call this one a keeper.

Who wrote it?
Jonathan Lethem was raised in a commune in what is now Boerum Hill, a borough of Brooklyn. His mother was a political activist, and his father was an avant-garde painter. He has written nine novels, including "Motherless Brooklyn," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999. Heavily influenced by Philip K. Dick, Lethem has been called a genre-bender, but he shirked off the label in 2003, stating, "talking about categories, about 'high' and 'low'... [is] an elaborate way to avoid actually discussing what moves and interests me about books."

Who will read it?
Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and anyone with an interest in the history of activism in the United States. Lethem's fancy prose is more present than ever - the lyricism of his sentences will make you pause, and his cultural references still crowd the page - but if you're a fan of his sci-fi stuff, this won't be the book for you.

What do the reviewers say?

The New York Times: "'Dissident Gardens' seamlessly weaves together three generations, yet it doesn’t broadcast itself as a multigenerational epic, nor is it afflicted by the desire to pose as the next great American novel. It’s an intimate book. Some of the strongest passages feature minor characters."

The New York Observer: "Gone here are the Philip K. Dickian fantastical elements and formal experimentations of his earlier novels’ softcore sci-fi. For his debut as a more straightforward realist, Mr. Lethem—still one of our 'young writers,' having turned 49 in February—has chosen an appropriately mature theme: ideas, or more accurately, ideology itself."

The Boston Globe: "Lethem’s fans will find much to enjoy here. However, readers with more traditional expectations and desires — say, a compelling story line or engaging, plausible characters — will have to endure some fairly baroque plotting as well as long, indulgent passages that can have a hit-or-miss quality."

The Seattle Times: "'In “Dissident Gardens,' there’s a lot of highlighter material. The writing soars. The story, alas, does not."

Opening lines:
"Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955."

Notable passage:
"The year Rose Angrush Zimmer fell in love with Archie Bunker was the same in which she began attending the funerals of strangers. This was also the time when Rose's perambulations grew increasingly random, her old block-watcher's orbit around Sunnyside becoming wobbly and strange, until it had unspooled completely."