When I was a grad student, I came across Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003), and for about a week I carried it with me everywhere I went and read it on trains, buses, park benches, and in coffee shops in Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville. And since then, it has occupied a permanent and comfortable slot in my mental list of favorite books I’ve ever read. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve directed folks to it when they ask for book recommendations, to say nothing of the number of times I’ve given copies as birthday or holiday gifts to friends.
Admittedly, I’ve not yet read Motherless Brooklyn (1999), the book most often regarded as his masterpiece thus far in his career, and this is partly because I know (with some degree of certainty) that I’m going to just love it, and so I’m saving it for a proverbial rainy day. I’ve read a few of his other books, though, in addition to Fortress, most recently Chronic City (2009), and I’ll say this: Jonathan Lethem is a mind-blowingly brilliant writer who writes sentences of utterly gorgeous precision and constructs almost unbelievably acrobatic narratives.
All that being said, though, Dissident Gardens left me a bit disappointed. And partly it’s because Lethem is too damn smart for his own good, if my readers will pardon the backhanded compliment.
The best way I can think to put it is this: Dissident Gardens is a novel that appeals more to writers than to readers. Its narrative is so delicately wrought and so patiently developed that it seems to almost never stop developing. As a wanna-be writer, I’ve always marveled at the patient manner in which good writers can spend fifty or a hundred or two hundred pages at the front end of a novel building the contextual edifice for the action that they then allow to unfold before the reader’s eyes. As I read Dissident Gardens, I just kept waiting for this phase to end, but the novel ended first. There’s almost no actual action whatsoever throughout the novel. There are no things—well, very few things—that happen. There are plenty of things that have happened or that the reader knows will happen, and most of the writing is dealing with characters in either the run up to, or the aftermath of, crucial plot developments, but the plot developments themselves all seem to happen off-stage. As a writer, it’s pretty amazing to witness, a kind of very clever parlor trick for other writers, but as a reader, it’s somewhat disappointing. To use a crude metaphor, it’s a book that produces readerly blue balls.
Let me be clear, though; there is much to be celebrated here. The novel’s plot almost effortlessly spans three separate generations, from the much-maligned matriarch Rose Zimmer and her cousin Lenny, to her daughter Miriam and her quasi-step-son Cicero Lookins, to Miriam’s son Sergius, all without feeling anything at all like your typical epic family saga. Rose and her late husband are card-carrying members of the Communist Party living in mid-century Queens. Lenny is a sad loner whose life never seems to go anywhere except toward its untimely end. Miriam inherits her mother’s revolutionary fervor (and struggles to not inherit much else) and marries a Dylan-esque guitar-strumming protest singer named Tommy Gogan, and Sergius, their son, years later, tries to discover his own revolutionary zeal as part of the Occupy movement. And Cicero, perhaps my favorite character of the bunch, black, gay, and very educated, also rails against Rose’s influence in his life. Overall, it’s a structure that is ripe for a juicy novel of ideas that stimulates the hell out of its readers, but, to my eye, despite Lethem’s gorgeous-as-always writing and its almost mathematically perfect structure and its very serious handling of questions about the place of revolutionaries in American society both in the 1950s and today, it ultimately falls flat.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very smart book, and fans of Jonathan Lethem will enjoy it, as I did, but for those who haven’t read Lethem before, I’d direct you first to The Fortress of Solitude, or perhaps Motherless Brooklyn.