What first drew me to this book was the fact that it is primarily set in Sunnyside Gardens, a neighborhood in Queens not too far from where I grew up. Before going on, a brief history about the neighborhood: It was a planned neighborhood conceived and built in the 1920s, offering what was supposed to be a “garden city life” to New York’s middle class residents. During the 1940s, it was considered the “hotbed of communism” in New York (check out this article dated from 1948 about a Communist Party leader who was beaten and stabbed near his home). A strange and surprising thing when you consider the very quiet, suburban nature of the neighborhood - even to this day. Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens sets its story, in part, at least, in this area of Queens.
The novel is a sprawling (and I mean sprawling) family saga about three generations of American radicals. Its matriarch Rose - a once true believer and staunch supporter of the American Communist Party; her daughter Miriam, a free spirited Beatnik turned Hippie turned revolutionary who “escaped” her Queens surroundings to wander around Greenwich Village; her son Sergius (via a struggling folk singer named Tommy Gogan) who flirts with the Occupy movement and Cicero, the son of an African-American policeman who Rose once had an affair with. There are other characters, of course - Rose’s cousin Lenin, a chess master and disillusioned radical and Tommy Gogan the folksinger who falls under Miriam’s spell which completely changes the trajectory of his creativity and career. The reader follows these characters through the years and how the times change them and how the specter of Rose hangs over them throughout the course of their individual lives.
Told in a non-linear fashion, it can get a little confusing at times to know where you’re at but the novel is, if not anything else, highly ambitious. The language is dense, rich, very “literary” but without all the “seriousness” - there is a humorous, sort of ironic tone throughout and a lot of it is quite funny and amusing. Through this particular family we are forced to question the nature of ideology and how firmly held beliefs can easily alienate the people closest to them. It also questions - quite heavily - the nature of American radicalism and whether or not it even succeeded, despite the true believers - like Rose - who stubbornly cling to their chosen ideology with religious fervor. The focus here is more on the “human” aspect more than it is the ideological (it’s not a leftist polemic, that’s for sure - and some readers may even read this novel as a stinging critique of the left). It also reaches into the lesser known history of New York City as a whole - that slice of life that had coexisted beside the other “New York City” at the time and even presently.
Over all, a very enjoyable book but one that will demand a lot of your focus and attention, mainly due to the language employed throughout. Personally, I was impressed. I haven’t read all of Lethem’s books yet (only one, his Science Fiction novel Girl In Landscape) but this one is most definitely worth the read. Like I said, it’s highly ambitious and you can tell a lot went into this. Definitely recommended.