August 19, 2017


27° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Severe thunderstorm watch in effect


Advertise With Us

Lethem's latest mines leftie family lore

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/9/2013 (1435 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

American Communists, it turns out, have a thing for the New York Mets. Or so Jonathan Lethem would have us believe.

In Dissident Gardens, Lethem's ninth novel, he returns to familiar ground, both literally and figuratively. Like three of his last four novels (the exception being 2007's You Don't Love Me Yet), Dissident Gardens is set in Lethem's native New York City, and in it Lethem turns, as he did to great effectiveness in 2003's The Fortress of Solitude, to his own family's history for his subject matter.

The results here are mixed, but worthwhile.

At the centre of the novel is Rose Angrush Zimmer, an unrepentant and lifelong Communist. Like Lethem's own maternal grandmother and mother, Rose and her daughter, Miriam, are residents, at the novel's outset, of a Jewish communist enclave in Sunnyside, Queens.

The opening chapters, however, recount their separate ejections from this would-be utopia. Rose has been kicked out of the Communist party by local apparatchiks as punishment for her affair with a black police officer, and 17-year-old Miriam is evicted by Rose for a failed attempt to lose her virginity in her mother's home.

The opening chapter, set in 1955, and the final one, set in September 2012, define the chronological limits of the novel, with the intervening chapters moving forward and backward in time, focusing on a range of characters closely connected to Rose and Miriam. The result is less a narrative than an unorthodox family portrait.

It isn't so simple as that, though, as the members of Rose's extended and ad hoc family stand for various veins or permutations of communism in post-Second World War America.

Albert, Rose's ex-husband, is an East German proponent of Soviet-style socialism. Her younger cousin Lenny, whose given name is Lenin, is a utopian Marxist-Leninist, theoretically skilled, but incompetent in practice.

Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose's lover, is a professor of literary theory, whose post-structuralist Marxism seems, like most aspects of his character, designed to shock and impress those around him.

Miriam and her husband Tommy naively attempt to translate their Greenwich Village folk homilies into revolutionary action in the jungles of Nicaragua, with predictably disastrous results.

The story is a family tragedy, but it's also a political allegory. The collapse of Rose's legacy is parallel to and bound up in the failure of postwar communism to find a foothold in America.

At the same time, Lethem works to debunk the common conception that to be a Communist is to be, as American political rhetoric has characterized it for the past six decades, anti-American.

The Communists of Dissident Gardens are devotees of American history and culture, from Abraham Lincoln and the Delta Blues to the New York Mets and Archie Bunker.

If anything, their failure comes from a quixotic over-investment in the idea of America. Unable to give up on their steadfast belief that right will win out over might, Lethem's characters are doomed by their inability to see past their ideals.

It is in Rose's last, and least likely, scion, her grandson Sergius Gogan, that Lethem offers a glimmer of hope for American communism. Sergius is a blank slate, orphaned then raised by Quakers, who discovers his inheritance from Rose not in the song cycle he intends to compose about his mother and grandmother, but in his discovery of his own strident anti-authoritarianism in the novel's closing pages.

Though Dissident Gardens lacks the immediate intensity of The Fortress of Solitude's portrait of 1970s Brooklyn, it is a smart, sprawling and insistently intimate portrait of a family whose politics underpin and undermine their every action.


Brandon Christopher is an assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg.


Advertise With Us

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective January 2015.

Photo Store

Scroll down to load more