Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (3 out of 5)


Jonathan Lethem has been a favorite of mine since Motherless Brooklyn, one of my top 50 books of all time. The next couple of books by him didn’t really move the quicksand on my deserted beach, but Chronic City in 2009 redeemed my faith in him. I find my literary faith in him altered somewhat by this entry into his cabal. I always count on him, like Michael Chabon, to provide me with characters and situations that I give a shit about. Sadly, I found I just didn’t care much at all about this novel’s outcome for the main characters.

The year is 1955 and New York City, Lethem’s primary location for all of his novels. We have a merry band of dissidents led by the free thinking radical Rose. She’s busted having an affair with an African American police officer. Remember- this is a time when that was looked upon as a sort of urban treason. Rose gets a bit of her karma back when she finds her teenage daughter Miriam in bed with an older college student. The book follows the mother and daughter through turbulent historical times, and introduces a supporting cast of characters who not only mark them both, but make their marks upon the novel beyond the years. Cicero, the son of Douglas (Rose’s policeman), is an intellectual firecracker who becomes an outspoken college professor, and manages to make his presence known at various points throughout the book. Miriam, who I think is the character I had most sympathy toward (because she has to try so hard to live up to her mother’s spark), moves on past her college trysting and marries a folksinger, in a harried and valiant attempt to give herself some credibility. (C’mon, if you were struggling with your identity and feeling lost in the bubble of 60’s free love, wouldn’t you have tried to assert your character and creative soul by marrying a Neil Young, a Stephen Stills, a Cat Stevens? That’s where she’s coming from, at least that’s what I got from that).  Miriam and Folkie have a son, Sergius, who goes on to schtupp the enemy.

Lethem, as usual, is very involved in the times he’s writing about. That’s one of the many reasons I love him; you never lose sense of history, nor those who were willing and unwilling participants in it. He doesn’t overdo his historical landmarks and retelling of it to the point where he’s describing the elasticity of Woodrow Wilson’s underwear.  I felt like there’s often so much going on in the 400 pages that Lethem often seems as odds as to what story to tell first, and often, he misses a chance to tell a different story intersecting with the sign of the times and the characters living through those times.

Lethem, as always, has complete mastery of his craft. In this case, Dissident Gardens, at times felt like it had a ghostwriter in the form of one Mr. Jonathan Franzen. It got so wordy that it bogged down whole entire parts of chapters. I wish the point had been gotten to quicker and in less of a verbose fashion than he delivered here. Chronic City was a whopper of a book also, but it didn’t have that sense of having to put the book down just because there were too many words. I love long books- I just finally started Fall of Giants by Mr. Ken Follett, and that fucker is over 900 pages. However, i started reading it two hours ago and I’m to page 155 already. No screwing around, Mr. Follett. I wish Mr. Lethem had done more of that with this book. I was hoping this one would keep me entertained so I could recommend new stuff after coming back from being off. No dice, unfortunately.

And the women- well, I loved Miriam as a character. We all know someone who keeps making all the wrong decisions to try to live up to expectations placed upon them by someone they admire ( or their family, where it’s much harder, as demonstrated here). Rosie doesn’t often mean to do that, she’s such a feisty, strong female role that of course her less self-assured daughter is going to feel as if she has to do something to maintain some form of credibility, due to her family genes. Rosie was a character that , despite her strong aura, never really gelled with me. She actually annoyed the grapes out of me most of the novel. Maybe if I had dug Rosie The Riveter(!) more, this wouldn’t have been such a bitch to get into and I would have enjoyed it more. I wish I had.


~ by generationgbooks on October 11, 2013.

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