I spent much of my free time during a brief, one-week break between semesters reading a fiction novel for leisure. Reading fiction for fun has been one of my great joys in life and I wanted to indulge in it while I could. One book I'd been longing to read was Jonathan Lethem's 2013 novel Dissident Gardens. I am a fan of Lethem's previous work, especially Fortress of Solitude, an epic, inter-racial coming-of-age tale set in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1980s. So when I heard that Lethem was writing about an inter-generational tale of leftist radicals, my curiosity was piqued. I have a serious interest in the history of the American left in the early and mid-20th Century, and I did some research on inter-generational political conflict in college. I was hoping that Lethem could bring these topics to life dramatically.
I was seriously disappointed by Dissident Gardens. The novel is a dark, one-note profile of sad and defeated characters. The main characters include Rose Zimmer, the matriarch who is abandoned by her husband and kicked out of the Communist Party; her cousin Lenny, who is bitter, isolated and out of touch with the culture around him; and her daughter, Miriam, an ineffectual activist haunted by her mother's emotional and physical abuse. This sense of defeat may ring true for the years covered in most of the novel (the late 1940s to early 1980s) when American communism was in fact discredited, despised, banned and infiltrated (not to mention morally and intellectually bankrupt). But it doesn't capture the tragedy of American Communism.
From the 1910s to 1930s, Americans were attracted to Communism because they sensed that the Soviet Union provided a model for a more rational form of planned economy. Many people genuinely believed that this model could provide inspiration for the betterment of people's lives. When these people sensed (correctly) that they were being manipulated by the American Communist Party, learned of the Stalinist purges or the Nazi-Soviet pact, many left the party. This narrative is in some sense a tragedy: people started off with high aspirations and met the low reality. By focusing on the 1940s onward, and the already-discredited and despised Communists, there is no dramatic fall. Dissident Gardens is a funeral dirge through the post-war era.
There are a few moments of comic relief, mostly through the Lenny character. Lenny has a harebrained scheme to create a major-league baseball team called the Proletariats. Instead, the Mets come to town. Lenny never goes to a Mets game after that; he "had no need for this team of confabulated Lovable Losers. He knew too many authentic ones starved for love." That gut punch is one of the most apt lines of the novel. It is a story of losers, and it could have used more love or harebrained schemes. In Fortress of Solitude, teenage boys find refuge from economic depression and parental neglect through comic book fantasies; there is no such magical refuge in this tale.
Intriguingly, these "losers" employ a different form of cultural expression: folk music, which Lethem seems to deride. As Lenny realizes in that same chapter, folk music is to these characters a "sentimentalization of the rural farmer type who doesn't actually pardon my French give a flying fuck about him." And yet the tragedy continues: Rose's family's love of folk music pervades the generations, through the 2010s.
This inter-generational determinism is another problem with Dissident Gardens. There are two existing models for the children of mid-century radicals: red-diaper babies, as described in many histories of SDS and the New Left, and conservatism (or centrism), as described in Gary Gerstle's Working Class Americanism, or Samuel Freedman's The Inheritance. Lethem can't decide how to portray Miriam, a somewhat non-ideological activist old enough to be involved in the New Left but who only seems to protest in support of subsidized child care or the Sandinistas. In numerous passages, Miriam and her son Sergius take Rose's Communist beliefs to heart, as if she has passed Communism to them genetically. That may have some truth to Lethem, who has written authoritatively on Brooklyn and perhaps might be onto something with regards to leftist communities in Queens like Rose's Sunnyside Gardens. But based on the historical literature on inter-generational political conflict, this determinism doesn't ring true.
If you want to read great dramatic depictions of about the rise and fall of the Popular Front, check out Philip Roth's I Married A Communist or Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. Both works address similar themes with more authority, heart and dramatic accuracy.