From his early, playful pastiches through ambitious works like “The Fortress of Solitude” (2003) and “Chronic City” (2009), the self-referential meta-theme in every Jonathan Lethem novel has been why we tell stories — and what the narratives we write or endorse say about who we are.
Given that Lethem spent part of his childhood in a commune, it was therefore probably inevitable that he’d eventually explore one of the most seductive narratives of the last century: the Communist Party’s once bright and shining vision of solidarity forever.
But as its pluralized title suggests, the wide-ranging “Dissident Gardens” gives us much more: not just the Eden for which the Old Left fought in America’s 1930s, but a multigenerational saga encompassing the utopian gardens to come, from the New Left’s flower power to the Occupy movement’s world without Wall Street.
In the beginning, Lethem creates Rose Zimmer — die-hard Communist, imposing matriarch of Queens’ Sunnyside Gardens apartment complex. Rose preaches love but is filled with hate; having “dedicated herself” to helping humanity overcome “the false divisions our notions of race and creed had imposed,” she marches toward a “disastrous” and increasingly total “estrangement” from the very people she wants to help.
“The true Communist,” Rose reflects at one point, “always ends up alone,” retreating into a fortress of solitude — a “cell of one,” as Lethem puts it, in which one tries to preserve the purity of one’s story by growing “radiant with disapproval.”
Lethem’s other main characters all come to define themselves by what they’re not — true to form in a country where oppositional politics, going all the way back to Anne Hutchinson, have featured a fiercely individualistic withdrawal from the very world one claims to engage.
But for all their glitter, Lethem’s razor-sharp images and characters can be as cold as a distant star — or, to invert this novel’s chess metaphor, pawns in Lethem’s own narrative. Advancing Lethem’s central thesis, they often exist as ideas rather than people; their relation to those ideas can be more compelling and credible than their relations with each other.
Lethem might respond by insisting that what is described as a flaw is just another variation of his central theme: how readily we lose touch with the personal base as we fixate on the political superstructure. “Dissident Gardens” is so smart and beautifully crafted that I’d be tempted to believe.