Rick Kleffel just posted his interview with Jonathan Lethem (MP3) about Lethem's new novel, Dissident Gardens, his latest New York City novel. It's about a Sunnyside Gardens family whose matriarch, Rose Zimmer, is being drummed out of the Communist Party. What follows is comic, sweet, and thoroughly grounded in New York. Based on Kleffel's review, I can't wait to read it.
Here is the story of Rose Zimmer, the Red Queen of Sunnyside Gardens, American Communist about to be sent packing from the party for her sins. Here is her difficult daughter, Miriam, the Pixie Dust Hippy Enchanter, and her husband Tommy Gogan, who wanted to be a folk singer. Here are the cousins, nieces, nephews, the grandsons, lovers, their children. Here are the lives.
'Dissident Gardens' is an expansive novel, a tale told in sidewise steps and prickly prose that suits the subjects, a Dickensian tale of mid-20th century New York. We meet Rose Zimmer as she is about to be ejected from the American Communist Party, for taking on a black lover, a local cop. Miriam is leading her own rebellion, mostly against Rose. Mother and daughter are at the core of the story, but the family is large. It extends beyond relation, into the neighborhood, and into the world, as built by Lethem.
As the story unfolds and the generations are revealed, a mystery involving Rose presents itself. Moving back and forth in time, slicing the story into now and then, Lethem, crafts a vision of a family's world in New York, with the kind of detail and excitement anyone might feel, sitting in their own living room and waiting to find out just what happened to members of their own family.
Lethem's prose is exciting and generally quite funny. 'Dissident Gardens' will make readers laugh out loud early and often. He can craft a sentence with just the right balance to tip the mood from serious to silly without ever sacrificing a grounded sense of the there and then or the here and now. His characters have names that are both believable and memorable in the manner of the best work of Dickens. Rose's maiden name is Angrush, and she often does seem to be rushing towards anger, though she does not always get there. Lethem's grammar makes his world fun to read about, vivid and screwball in the way families are vivid and screwball.
(Photo: John Lucas)