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6 February 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: A revolution in the head

This book forsakes the traditional linear structure for a series of episodes, zipping back and forth through the decades – and the revolutions.

By Helen Lewis

Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £18.99

By coincidence, I read Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens in the same week the new Coen brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davies, came out. The Coens, aged 59 and 56, grew up in Minnesota before moving to New York; Lethem is a decade younger and had the good fortune to be born in the city, which has regularly featured in his fiction.

In a strange act of synchronicity, both works share the same backdrop: Greenwich Village of the early 1960s, with walk-on parts for the Gate of Horn club, Dave Van Ronk and the great electric betrayer himself, Bob Dylan. But while Inside Llewyn Davies remains stubbornly chained to the dives and sidewalks of the folk scene’s patch, Dissident Gardens roams more widely. Alongside Dylan leaving everyone else behind – just a footnote in an early chapter of his life – there’s Norman Mailer, having wild parties beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, an unconquerable divide away. To readers whose peers are always parading their manicured lives on Instagram and Facebook, it’s reassuring to know that “fear of missing out” isn’t a uniquely modern ailment. Most of our lives are lived on the margins of the biography of someone more interesting.

Dissident Gardens, Lethem’s ninth novel, tells the story of three generations of the same family: matriarch Rose, a refugee from Germany desperate to shed her Yiddish and become truly American; her rebellious, idealistic daughter, Miriam; and Miriam’s sonSergius and his almost-half-brother, Cicero, son of Rose’s black policeman lover.

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This is a story of three revolutions, each doomed to disappoint. Rose’s life is dedicated to communism, even after Stalin makes his pact with Hitler and she discovers that “Reds [have] become Jews again”. She sacrifices her marriage to the cause, as her husband, Albert, is exiled to East Germany, only for her to be later chucked out of the party for daring to take a lover. (It is never clear whether the fact Douglas Lookins is black, or a police officer, is more offensive to Rose’s fellow travellers.) Miriam’s revolution ends in a forest clearing in Nicaragua; decades later, Sergius latches on to the Occupy movement, which his hippyish girlfriend tells him is “like a way of being, Sergius. Just living differently.” That certainly beats being exiled to East Germany or shot by anti-Sandinistas. In this telling, revolutions are either bloody or pallid.

The book forsakes the traditional linear structure for a series of episodes, zipping back and forth through the decades. This suits the motif of diminishing returns, although it does rob the characters’ deaths of their punch when they are prefigured so heavily. It means also that the book’s best moments are fleeting: Miriam’s appearance on a game show, high on weed, as every question provokes a memory about New York; Rose’s rage when she finds Miriam in bed with a man, leading to an argument where she tears off her clothes and (oh-so-symbolically) shoves her daughter’s head in an oven; Miriam’s day out with an adolescent Cicero, where she lets him know that she knows he is gay with the simple injunction to “wear your love like heaven”.

What prevents me from liking Dissident Gardens is its language: it tries far too hard, intrudes too much, and the misses pile up to the extent that they undermine the hits. Take Cicero’s dreadlocks, “his remote-control mental emanations made into fuzzy tentacles . . . chiaroscuro contrails”, or Miriam’s arousal, “where a trickle of her excessively fervent self had moistened her anus and inner thighs”. Cicero loves her because “he fell in love with the efflorescence of [her] details”. Every detail in this story is efflorescent – and it’s bloody exhausting.