Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes
Jonathan Lethem
Dissident Gardens
Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-53493-2
Publication Date: 09-10-2013
372 Pages ; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 10-12-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013
Index:  General Fiction

We need look no father than our own families to find mystery. Those who brought us up, those who we brought up, the fathers and mothers and daughters and sons all prove to have identities outside the family; they are men and women as well. It seems obvious from the outside, but from within, it is buried in the murk of memory.

Jonathan Lethem's 'Dissident Gardens' is a complex, engaging, intense exploration of family, a series of prose memory probes sent into the murky depths. It's not a straightforward story. Lethem peels back the layers of memory asynchronously, beginnings here, endings there, middles here, untangling knots of story in the precise manner of families.

Here is the story of Rose Zimmer, the Red Queen of Sunnyside Gardens, American Communist about to be sent packing from the party for her sins. Here is her difficult daughter, Miriam, the Pixie Dust Hippy Enchanter, and her husband Tommy Gogan, who wanted to be a folk singer. Here are the cousins, nieces, nephews, the grandsons, lovers, their children. Here are the lives.

'Dissident Gardens' is an expansive novel, a tale told in sidewise steps and prickly prose that suits the subjects, a Dickensian tale of mid-20th century New York. We meet Rose Zimmer as she is about to be ejected from the American Communist Party, for taking on a black lover, a local cop. Miriam is leading her own rebellion, mostly against Rose. Mother and daughter are at the core of the story, but the family is large. It extends beyond relation, into the neighborhood, and into the world, as built by Lethem.

As the story unfolds and the generations are revealed, a mystery involving Rose presents itself. Moving back and forth in time, slicing the story into now and then, Lethem, crafts a vision of a family's world in New York, with the kind of detail and excitement anyone might feel, sitting in their own living room and waiting to find out just what happened to members of their own family.

Lethem's prose is exciting and generally quite funny. 'Dissident Gardens' will make readers laugh out loud early and often. He can craft a sentence with just the right balance to tip the mood from serious to silly without ever sacrificing a grounded sense of the there and then or the here and now. His characters have names that are both believable and memorable in the manner of the best work of Dickens. Rose's maiden name is Angrush, and she often does seem to be rushing towards anger, though she does not always get there. Lethem's grammar makes his world fun to read about, vivid and screwball in the way families are vivid and screwball.

Storytelling in 'Dissident Gardens' is superb and rich. Each piece sits nicely in its own time, but the story is not told chronologically. We'll get a lab of the past, a slice of the present and then a rich segment between the two. Whole episodes are mentioned in passing and then revealed in detail. It's a glorious reading experience to explore Rose's family in Lethem's depth-probe manner. Putting together the puzzle of just what's important and why gives the narrative a real sense of intense tension, with every successive scene adding to the world.

'Dissident Gardens' is the third of Lethem's big New York novels, following 'The Fortress of Solitude' and 'Chronic City,' and his first fully historical novel, given that much of it is set more than half a century ago. With 'Dissident Gardens,' Lethem really hits the perfect balance between the antic and the tragic. There's certainly more humor than unhappiness, but the latter sets off the former and makes the laughter genuine. It's tinged with nostalgia, sadness, the stuff of life. Readers who love reading, who crave the experience that only a big, funny, well-wrought novel can offer need look no further.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us