Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

Time Heals No Wounds

Jonathan Lethem traces a family's radical legacy

Jess Row


In “Down with Childhood,” perhaps the most provocative chapter in her 1970 classic The Dialectic of Sex, the feminist-Marxist radical Shulamith Firestone argued that revolutionary women, rather than rejecting motherhood altogether, could find common cause with their children: “The mother who wants to kill her child for what she has had to sacrifice for it,” she wrote, “learns to love that same child only when she understands that it is as helpless, as oppressed as she is, and by the same oppressor: then her hatred is directed outward, and ‘motherlove’ is born.”

Motherlove: the love that comes after the desire to kill is suppressed; the love entwined with pity and “hatred directed outward.” For Firestone this was only a step toward the elimination of reproduction itself, clearing the way, as she says, “for a fully ‘human’ condition.” But for some of us born and raised in the late ’60s and early ’70s, this brand of love is a vivid and precise memory: our childhoods a strange mixture of experiment and isolation—macrobiotic school lunches, antinuke marches, custody meetings, latchkey afternoons—in the service of a cause, or causes, we never fully understood.

In The Fortress of Solitude (2003), Jonathan Lethem chronicled a ’70s childhood close to his own: a young white boy growing up in predominantly black, pregentrification brownstone Brooklyn, constantly bullied and humiliated, his artist father sunk into oblivion, his idealistic, scatterbrained mother unwilling to face the consequences of her choices. In Dissident Gardens, Lethem skip-hops us to Queens, widens the scope by one generation, and raises the revolutionary ante: It’s the same panorama of disastrous parenthood in the service of higher things—an epic of intimate betrayals—but with more permanent, scarring, and even deadly consequences.

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Dissident Gardens begins in 1955, in an apartment kitchen in Sunnyside Gardens, where Rose Angrush Zimmer, veteran of decades in the Communist Party, is finally expelled—for “excessive zeal for racial justice,” namely, a relationship with a married black policeman. Rose is a proud agent of the Soviets whose life is molded bitterly around the cause: Married young to a German émigré and Communist Party leader who was shipped back to East Germany after despairing of revolution in America and dissolving into an alcoholic fog, she was then banished herself to union stewardship at a pickle factory and single motherhood in Queens, “that suburb of the enraged.” Only months after her expulsion, in 1956, Khrushchev reveals to the world the extent of Stalin’s atrocities, and the party itself all but dissolves.

American Communism is dead, but Rose’s motherlove is born: a love that begins in righteous anger and solidarity but soon devolves into all-purpose rage, displacement, paranoia, and blame. She steeps her daughter, Miriam, in dialectical materialism from the womb; Miriam becomes a brilliant prodigy, attending Queens College at seventeen, but once given a taste of freedom, she flees, finding her way to Macdougal Street and melting into the nascent counterculture, where her radical past gives her a certain superficial cachet. “No doubt you’d step over my body on your way to Greenwich Village,” Rose says, sticking her head in the oven to prove her point,

“on your voyage to where the squares wouldn’t go. But I hardly imagined you’d shower me with laughter as you went past.”

“You’re not dying, Rose.”

“I am inside.”

That’s how you know you’re still alive, Miriam wanted to tell her.

In Lethem’s description, Rose is a stifled genius of savage repartee, a revolutionary who now controls only the Neighborhood Watch—ossified in midlife into a caricature of herself. “Rose would never die precisely because she needed to live forever,” he writes, “a flesh monument, commemorating socialism’s failure as an intimate wound. . . . If you mentioned a name she’d never heard, she’d rattle out like a Gatling gun: ‘Who?’ Meaning, if they were valuable to know, why weren’t they already part of her operation? If they weren’t, why trust them? Why even mention them?” Miriam, freed from the humorless disciplines of Leninist orthodoxy, becomes a hapless avatar of the New Left: She marries an Irish folksinger, Tommy Gogan, whose career implodes after Dylan goes electric; runs a commune on Seventh Street and Avenue C that devolves into a flophouse; becomes involved in radical feminism but is secretly repelled by other women, with a phobic revulsion at the sight of breasts; and finally, as the ’70s are drawing to a close, leaves her son behind to support the Sandinistas, and meets an untimely death alongside Tommy in the mountains of Nicaragua, possibly at the hands of the CIA.

Lethem structures Dissident Gardens as a series of broadly chronological episodes, moving deftly from one consciousness to another, making the novel an extended family affair over three generations. Probably the most vivid of all the novel’s indelible characters is, at first glance, a relatively minor one: Lenin “Lenny” Angrush, Miriam’s older second cousin, a neglected, neurotic misfit whose frustrated love for Miriam—and Communism—renders him unfit for any normal life. Lenny becomes a genius numismatist, obsessive over the tiny technicalities of coinage, and dies in a spectacular and pointless fraud, assassinated by IRA thugs after selling them altered Krugerrands. His story could be a novella of its own—along the lines of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day—with its brilliant self-contained detour into the building of Shea Stadium, which Lenny believes will be the worker’s stadium, home of the Sunnyside Proletarians, “a thorn in the paw of the plutocrats.”

The downside to this episodic approach to such a large-scale story—and there’s always a downside to any formal choice in a novel—is that we don’t get the sense of continuous immersion in the life of any one character. We see Rose in the ’30s, fighting the Communist Party tooth and nail to avoid being assigned to a doomed farming commune in New Jersey; in the ’50s, at the moment of the twin betrayals; and then in the early ’80s, after Miriam’s death, as she spirals into grief-aided dementia. But because the rest of the novel falls so entirely under Rose’s shadow—because she’s the subject of endless debate and recrimination—her presence is more mythic than actual, more talked about than talking.

Rose’s mythic status is most painful for Sergius Gogan, Miriam’s son, born in the ’70s and raised, after his parents’ deaths in Nicaragua, at a Quaker boarding school, kept out of Rose’s reach by Miriam’s friends and allies. Sergius meets his grandmother only once, when she’s too far gone into dementia to recognize him; his only access to the facts comes through Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s black lover, now an overweight gay academic in his fifties who teaches literature at a small college in Maine. In the novel’s final episode, set in 2011, Sergius travels to Maine to meet Cicero in hopes of gathering enough material to write a song cycle about his parents and grandmother. Cicero, embittered by years as Rose’s unwilling protégé—“She’d produced a marvel! A black brain!”—wants no part of it: “You, receding-red-haired ghost,” he thinks, seeing Sergius, “with accent blandly neutral, not even tinged with New Yorkese, you are free to melt into The Caucasian Nothing, so why don’t you?”

Which only underscores the pattern of motherlove in Dissident Gardens—in broad and unscientific terms, the not-so-repressed desire to kill, or at least isolate and undermine, the next generation, to render them directionless and (literally or figuratively) parentless as well. “Be free of them,” Cicero commands Sergius, probably the novel’s least helpful sentiment; instead, Sergius goes for a walk, and discovers the town’s tiny Occupy encampment, where he meets his own version of Miriam, a dreadlocked vagabond named Lydia who’s touring the demonstration sites of the Northeast, singing Tommy Gogan’s ancient protest songs. (What would a novel like this be without one wildly improbable, puzzle-notching coincidence?) Cicero—who despite (or perhaps because of) his immersion in Marxist cultural theory is a complacent, pompous snob—finds Lydia infuriating and the Occupy movement pathetic, but Sergius is enraptured, and sets off to accompany Lydia on her journey.

“The problem with all utopian ideologies,” Cicero says, paraphrasing Doris Lessing, “is they pit themselves against the tyranny of the bourgeois family, and . . . it’s basically hopeless. . . . The deep fate of each human is to begin with their mother and father as the whole of reality, and to have to forge a journey to break into the wider world. . . . The exact nature of the battle might be particular . . . but the lot is universal.” One could just as well substitute the word “novel” for “family”: The bourgeois novel reifies the family, webbing each character into dependencies and resentments they’ll never escape. Embedded within Dissident Gardens, at several strategic points, are references to Buddenbrooks: Is this what Lethem means to create, the cyclical, discrete unspooling of a doomed family? Or is Sergius’s rediscovery of his father’s songs meant to reveal a deeper and more important continuity, that of music, stories, perhaps even ideas themselves, once the murky transactions of a life have been forgotten?

Perhaps both. Dissident Gardens is—in a beautiful and unsettling way—a deeply agnostic novel, only briefly tolerant of any one egomaniacal parent or child’s inner Sturm und Drang. Whether we’re meant to think that the Occupy movement will take America back into a period of sustained progressive activism, like the ’30s, or view it merely as a sad footnote to Rose’s dreams of a Moscow on the Hudson, isn’t quite the point. The point is the dissonance, the way in which one life, one ideology, one voice, never quite succeeds in crowding the others out—partly as a result of time and mortality, and partly because ideologues never stop being fallible human beings. The novel achieves a kind of hard-won grace and equanimity that none of its characters could imagine.

Jess Row's novel Your Face in Mine will be published by Riverhead in summer 2014.

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