Jonathan Lethem's 'Dissent Gardens': Turn left and head for Queens

New York TimesSeptember 21, 2013 

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    Fiction Dissident Gardens Jonathan Lethem

    Doubleday, 366 pages

In “Dissident Gardens,” a novel jam-packed with the human energy of a crowded subway car, Jonathan Lethem attempts a daunting feat: turning three generations’ worth of American leftists into a tragicomic tale of devolution.

He has couched this as a family story and written it so that someone’s hot breath is always in the reader’s face. One of the two main characters tries to stick the other’s head in a gas oven. And this is as tender a moment as Rose Angrush, gifted with a “hammer of personality,” and her daughter, Miriam, “the maven of Macdougal Street,” ever share.

Rose raises Miriam in Sunnyside Gardens, the Queens neighborhood that comes to represent World War II-era Communists “in pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis,” as Lethem writes memorably in the book’s opening scene.

They have no idea what Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin in 1956 will do to their idealism. The novel deals with that. But it doesn’t waste time on the excesses of McCarthyism. It’s a big book set in small spaces – kitchen, classroom, folky nightclub – that keep its battles personal at all times.

Angrush is a great name for this family, summoning anger and anguish and whatever else caused Rose’s parents to give her brother Lenin as a first name.

The book’s timeline jumps around to good effect, moving to the teenage Miriam, “this raven-haired Jewess with a vocabulary like Lionel Trilling,” and the epic mother-daughter oven combat. Lethem sounds particularly Rothian when he brings Rose to a pitch of hysteria that makes her bare her “vast, soft, pale-yellow, mole-strewn breasts.”

When Miriam marries an Irish folk singer, this book leaps into an eagle-eyed description of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. (Lethem’s commentary on popular culture is irresistibly worked into the lives of these characters. When Miriam wants her mother to hear “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Rose responds, “I won’t listen until they stop screaming.”)

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