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In These 'Gardens,' The Tree Rings Of The Radical Left

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Mohsin Hamid's latest novel is called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, Dissident Gardens, is expansive in scale. Chronologically speaking, it begins in the 1930s with Communist Party meetings in the U.S. It passes through the rise of McCarthyism, the establishment of the New York Mets, the hippie Age of Aquarius and the AIDS crisis. It ventures briefly abroad, to such places as behind-the-Iron-Curtain East Germany and war-torn Nicaragua. It ends in the Obama era of Occupy sit-ins and a rampant TSA.

But the novel does not proceed chronologically: It cuts repeatedly across time. Lethem's structure consists of four parts, each of four chapters, each chapter often recounting events separated by decades, from multiple points of view. This sounds confusing. It's a testament to Lethem's skill that reading it is not.

What holds the narrative together are its characters, in particular two powerful women: American communist firebrand Rose Zimmer and her progressive activist daughter, Miriam. Around them circles a constellation of men: men like Albert, Rose's husband, a left-wing, aristocratic German Jew; Cicero Lookins, the gay son of Rose's black cop lover; and Lenin "Lenny" Angrush, Miriam's lustful, scamming cousin.

Lethem animates these people with intimacy. His prose is oral in its rhythms (we read of an "imperfect, flat-assed moon"), its varying tonalities reflecting the inner voices of his characters. He tells their tales in what might be called a conventional, close third-person, "realistic" vein. There are slight deviations from this as well: a poignant epistolary chapter of letters between Miriam and Albert, for example, or the surreal encounters Rose, entering dementia, has with the TV character Archie Bunker.

Pop culture references are everywhere: Archie Bunker, of course, and also an ongoing stream of singers, writers, actors — people of lasting or transient fame. It's a mode, or technique, that feels profoundly American. As does the novel's maximalism: this is a big novel, from a country that has long had a rather vocal tradition of support for bigness in novels.

Dissident Gardens is, in part, a personalized history of the American left. Lethem captures optimistic communists and hippies in moments when they feel triumphant — and follows them to their political doom. For America has been a leftist graveyard, as the current historical moment of bank bailouts and half-hearted (but virulently resisted) health care reform makes clear. Still, doom is possibly too final a word: something always survives each dissident movement, to be taken up anew, in fresh forms.

Lethem's characters are riven by tensions. On the one hand they inhabit identities they have not chosen: gender, obviously, but also Jewishness, to which Lethem returns repeatedly, as well as blackness, gayness, the status of being someone's child. On the other, they cling to identities they have adopted for themselves: communist, activist, pacifist, singer, lover, wife.

The interplay between these two, between taken and given, personal and political, lies at the broken heart of Dissident Gardens. The span of this novel allows us to witness the impact of choices and legacies playing out across lifetimes, across generations, frequently to wrenching emotional effect. I was surprised, more than once, by my own sadness in the face of a character's impending demise.

At the end of Rose's life, with the old communist now suffering from dementia in a nursing home, Cicero comes to see her. "The gaze with which she'd cut down American Brownshirts," Lethem writes, "or landlord-corrupted police captains attempting to execute eviction notices, she now levied against Cicero's slight oversell of the rice pudding."

Thus, perhaps, do most dissidents end: their personal fragility inescapable, their desired political transformation out of reach, their individual smallness crushed by the weight of the collective millions they seek to change.

But not entirely crushed. Cicero offers a consolation: "'You did okay, though, Rose. You existed a while. It's in the record books.'" And it's in this moving novel, too.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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