Dissident Gardens is Jonathan Lethem’s big book, a Buddenbrooks transported from Lübeck, Germany, to Queens, New York. Old-fashioned and epic in all the proper ways, spanning generations, full of history and human yearning, yet post-post-modern enough to include in its awareness of itself The History Of The Novel. (Its cast of characters includes one Albert Zimmer, born in Lübeck, proudly announcing when opportunity arises, right next door to the Mann clan and its famous author.) Yet, for all of its largeness and impractical ambition—traversing a half-century of American-bred political radicalism from parlor Communism to tentpole Occupation—Dissident Gardens does a miraculous thing that big books almost never do: It shrinks.
If Norman Mailer was the last true practitioner in pursuit of the myth of the Great American Novel, it is perhaps no coincidence that Miriam, the spirited offspring of Rose and Albert Zimmer, goes in search of a party at Mailer’s house in Brooklyn Heights only to end up abandoning the idea. Instead, she lustfully gropes a handpicked boy on the train all the way back to her Sunnyside Gardens home where her mother theatrically disrupts her daughter’s potential deflowering in a tableau of kitchen-floor crawling, oven doors, and murder-suicide threats. Whatever imagined mystique might exist inside the walls of the unreachable lit-fête is destroyed by Miriam’s “total disinterest in Mailer or the dark roofs or cold sky or anything outside of themselves and their skins.” Lethem’s characters aspire to live greatly rather than become absorbed in the chitchat of possible greatness.
This novelis itself full of aspiration, swinging madly from Mets games at Shea Stadium to the jungles of Nicaragua, from the MacDougal Street folk scene to a Quaker boarding school for boys. The map Lethem draws is far and wide, and it scurries back and forth along a timeline of American history ferreting out too many cultural touchstones to list, both colossal (Abraham Lincoln) and miniature (Q*bert).
The wide-eyed Utopianism of Lethem’s cast is their essential conflict, too, each in turn testing out their worldview on one another by influence or by force. For all of their weary idealism, their ambition to change the world becomes increasingly diminished by circumstance or the passage of time. Rose and Miriam grow and part; ex-husbands and cousins drift back to Europe or into coin-collecting, finding tranquility by reducing global history down to the (actual) size of a penny. In a delightfully surreal and sad passage, the novel’s matriarch, Rose, the Last Communist, aged and reduced to marathon viewings of All In The Family, begins an imaginary affair with Archie Bunker, dissolving into her TV set, capitulating her will for the people to the show’s irascible, intolerant protagonist: “Let Archie have the last word. She was done speaking aloud to shadows crossing the room, the lashings of the tube’s light and color against the gray inward screen of her longing.”
As the center of the novel, Rose Zimmer sets in orbit nearly all of the its other players, the lot of them spinning out from her politics, her borrowed influence gleaned from her cherished volumes of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln. Whether it’s Miriam’s folk-singer husband, Tommy Gogan, pilfering “negro” lives in the Bowery for his middling songs, or Miriam herself appearing on a game show to somehow make cash out of what she knows, the people of Dissident Gardens are consistently disappointed by the available means for the expression (or practice) of their ideals.
Cicero Lookins, the son of the black cop with whom Rose’s ill-advised affair had her booted from the Party, grows into a 300-pound dreadlocked intellectual. Book-smart and skeptical, tenured and adrift in Maine, watching students abandon his classroom mid-lecture, Cicero feels increasingly useless, unloved, and alone. He takes frequent swims in the cold Atlantic, deep into autumn, aiming for a perspective from which to clearly see the continent that has so bewildered him, his own family, and the satellite of Zimmers that refuses to disappear from his life. In one of his last visits with Rose, Cicero elicits from her a startling pronouncement, a distillation of her failures, uttered almost as an aside during a brief spasm of clarity: “Capitalism wouldn’t get out of the way. We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t begin to exist. It filled all available space.”
Though Dissident Gardens is sometimes overcrowded by all of the things history discards in its wake, including other novels, it has ambition to spare. With this effort, Lethem yearns to make sense of a century of American longing, the same longing that created the very notion of the Great American Novel. And if the author comes up short, that only means more yearning, more longing, and (hopefully) more novels like this one. Mailer be damned.