Protest is relative

Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel about the struggles of three generations of a left-wing family in New York is funny, serious, tragic, madcap – and brilliant, Cyrus Patell writes

Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York City last month. The Occupy movement makes a cameo appearance in Jonathan Lethem’s novel on leftist life, Dissident Gardens. Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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Jonathan Lethem’s exuberant new novel, Dissident Gardens, chronicles the failed hopes and dreams of three generations of American leftists, as it explores what it means to live under the sway of ideology. Lethem has more than a passing familiarity with leftist politics: his mother was a Jewish political activist and a hippie who was once arrested protesting on the steps of the US Capitol; his father was an avant-garde painter and Lethem and his two siblings grew up in a commune in Brooklyn that was full of artistic types. More recently, Lethem gave a reading at an Occupy Wall Street event wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’m Calling It Shea”, a reference to the renaming of the stadium in which the New York Mets baseball team plays: the naming rights were bought by Citibank and the stadium’s name was changed from “Shea Stadium” to “CitiField”. All three motifs – the Occupy movement, lawyer Bill Shea, and the New York Mets – make cameo appearances in Dissident Gardens.

Often regarded as one of the foremost chroniclers of life in the New York borough of Brooklyn, in Dissident Gardens Lethem shifts his focus to the borough of Queens, finding inspiration in memories of his grandmother’s apartment there. The gardens of the novel’s title refer to the planned community known as Sunnyside Gardens, built between 1924 and 1929, and one of the first urban developments in the United States to use the “superblock” model. In Lethem’s novel, the Gardens is described as “the official Socialist Utopian Village of the outer boroughs”.

The novel opens in 1955 in the Sunnyside Gardens apartment of Rose Angrush Zimmer, who is being purged from the American Communist Party because she has been having an affair with a married African-American policeman, who is a known anti-Communist. Rose’s maiden name is a wonderful portmanteau word, suggesting a combination of anger, anguish and rushing about – all of which mark not only Rose but her cousin Lenny, whose given name is actually Lenin. (Single-minded family, the Angrushes!) The irony – as the novel makes clear – is that Rose is being drummed out of the party just months before Nikita Khrushchev’s revelation of his predecessor Stalin’s mass purges gives American communism a punch in the gut from which it never recovers. “Rose,” Lethem writes, “felt the force of this dead utopia, the whole of Sunnyside Gardens corrupted by the onrush of coming disappointment, seeking scapegoats for their stupid guilt at their wasted lives.”

What Rose experiences is an extreme form of the bewilderment that many of the novel’s characters feel as their ambitions are thwarted by forces – some personal, some historical – that remain forever beyond their comprehension.

Rose’s cousin Lenny has a moment of insight into why American Communism was probably doomed from the start. Drawing on the early history of the New York Mets, whose owners had originally committed to participate in the formation of a third major baseball league in the US, Lethem has Lenny pursue the quixotic goal of trying to create a team called the Sunnyside Proletarians. Hoping to get the lawyer Bill Shea to listen to a working-class theme song that Miriam’s folk-singer husband has composed, Lenny suddenly realises that he’s looking at “the face of the revolution’s worst enemy”. Lenny has always prided himself on being able to recognise “capitalism’s fatal flaw, its undertow of squalor, its keening and cleaning, the morbidity … behind the sales pitch”. Shea simply doesn’t see things that way. Instead, he’s “righteous. He believed that bad things could in him be made good”. Lenny realises that “it was this belief, afloat everywhere in this great land … that had prohibited Communism from arriving in the United States of America”.

In this moment, the understanding of American ideology that animates Dissident Gardens closely resembles the account offered by the distinguished scholar of American culture Sacvan Bercovitch, whose given name might seem, at first glance, to hail from one of Eastern Europe’s many cultures. It doesn’t: Bercovitch’s parents were anarchist painters in Montreal in the late 1920s, and Sacvan was named after Sacco and Vanzetti, who were executed for their anarchist politics.

Given his upbringing, Bercovitch felt a sense of cultural shock when he crossed both literally and symbolically into America: “When I entered the United States from Canada in the mid-1960s,” he writes in the preface to the 2012 revised edition of his influential study The American Jeremiad, “it was the protest era – against the Vietnam War, racism, patriarchy, and the military-industrial complex – [and] the spectacle that greeted me was a nation in dissent calling for rededication to the country’s Founding Fathers – a vehement, sometimes violent movement against the establishment.”

Bercovitch came to understand that in the US, social change was “ritually controlled through dissent”. The US, after all, was founded through revolution, but thereafter “revolution” is something that the culture seems to stage: in his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln declared that whenever the people of the US “shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it”. The rhetoric is powerful because it has the effect of co-opting revolutionary impulses by appearing to authorise them.

Not surprisingly, given the canniness of Lethem’s portrayal of the workings of American culture, Lincoln looms large in Dissident Gardens.

In the opening scene, we learn that Rose has created an Abraham Lincoln shrine in her apartment: on a small three-legged table, she keeps an “original six-volume” edition of Carl Sandburg’ s monumental biography of Lincoln, “plus a photograph of herself and her daughter at the memorial’s statue in DC, propped in a little frame, and a commemorative fake cent-piece the circumference of a slice of liverwurst”. Cicero Lookins, the gay son of Rose’s African-American lover, comes to believe that Rose’s fascination with Lincoln was intimately wrapped up in the fact of his assassination. He tells Rose’s grandson: “Rose was into death, Sergius! That’s what she dug about Lincoln, though she’d never admit it. He emancipated our black asses and died!” In one absurdist episode, Cousin Lenny dons a Lincoln Halloween costume while on the run from IRA hitmen and ultimately ends up having a strange sexual encounter with Rose before meeting his maker in Lincolnesque fashion. The novel’s treatment of the Lincoln motif is emblematic of Lethem’s overall technique: it’s funny and serious and tragic and a little bit madcap.

If Cicero strikes the reader as one potential stand-in for the novel’s author, the final scene shows us another character who resembles Lethem as well: Sergius, Rose’s grandson, who has lost his mother at an early age and has been struggling to come to terms with the idea – “American Communism” – that is his only family legacy. Meeting an activist from the Occupy Movement who will no doubt remind the reader of a young Rose, Sergius finds a way at last to fit himself into a fiction that could well give his life meaning.

Ultimately, Dissident Gardens pays tribute to the sustaining power of fiction, bringing the struggles of the American left to full-blooded life as only a novel can.