People who don't believe in God but have an almost religious belief in causes are at the center of Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Dissident Gardens. The novel opens in 1955 Queens, N.Y., when Rose Zimmer, a secular Jew and Communist, is expelled from the party, ostensibly because the local committee disapproves of her affair with a black police officer.
Rose is a single mother who brings up her daughter, Miriam, to believe it's just a matter of time until the Nazis or the FBI come knocking. Miriam eventually flees Queens and her perpetually dissatisfied mother by moving to Greenwich Village, where, in 1961, she marries a folksinger. They're activists in the peace movement and live in a commune where they raise their son, Sergius, who describes his birthright as half Jewish, full hippie.
The characters of Rose and Miriam were inspired by Lethem's mother and grandmother, and Sergius' story connects to parts of Lethem's own life.
Lethem won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999 for his novel Motherless Brooklyn. His 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude, was a best-seller. He joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss writing about his family's legacy.
On why he decided to write a book about his family
"I knew that I had a kind of legacy: I grew up in a family of protesters. I never really had gone there. I wanted to touch it; I wanted to think about it. ... I was ready to think about my grandmother's weird, lonely, imperial existence in Sunnyside, Queens. And so those urges and those interests led me into the thicket."
On the complexities of his grandmother's many romantic affairs
"All of the things she avowed most as noble and heroic ... had a sexy quality to them, to her, which she would've never acknowledged. The other thing was that [they] were kind of authority figures. So this person who was a socialist was also really into presidents, cops, and mayors, and judges, and even priests. ... This is where this person is really complicated: She loves a man in uniform."
On his grandmother's faith and political beliefs
"What [a] tormenting situation, to be an intellectual woman of her generation and grow up with this enormous identity, but it was an identity founded on belief that she couldn't sustain. She was violently secular. She loved culture and she loved books and all sorts of things that Jews care for, but she couldn't believe in the Jewish God, or any God, and she felt terrible about it.
"She felt enraged that other people didn't see the obviousness all at once, but she substituted, I think, at some point, other kinds of beliefs — belief in ... humanism, and I think if she was at any point seriously a Communist ... that was a belief. And as anybody who studied the history of communist movements knows ... it's analogous [to religion]; it draws passion out of people and sometimes irrational passion.
"So all of these things are muddled up for her. And maybe some of those later beliefs become disappointed, violently disappointed, as well. Other gods die: The god [of] literature fails her, the god of socialism fails her.
" ... I was very interested in the book in writing ... about someone who was so into so many kinds of theoretical freedoms. She embraced such diversity. ... Diversity was heroic to her."
On growing up on a commune where nudity was common
"You shouldn't overlook the human ability to partition things and make special categories and create exemptions.
" ... For me there were the typical teenage fascinations with the mysteries of the bodies of the girls I was going to school with, where to glimpse a bra strap might've blown my mind. And at the same time, I'd go home and I'd go up to my dad's studio and sit there with him and draw from a naked model for a few hours. But that was art; that was another thing.
"Or I might take a shower with my cousin at her commune because they had a group shower and that was interesting to me, too, and probably titillating. But I kept these things very tightly organized in order to function. So each thing was its own separate reality."
On how his parents and grandmother influenced his sense of identity
"My parents' attitude toward the visionary world that they wanted to live in [was that] it was an embattled one. And my grandmother's attitude toward, I think, her visionary beliefs and her idealism was that of someone who had been betrayed.
"... I was raised with a whole lot of options as to what I should identify as or with, but at the same time there was this message, this contradictory message that my grandmother would ... whisper: '... It doesn't matter what you think you are. When the Nazis come, you're a Jew. They're going to pin that yellow star on you, so it doesn't matter that you're going to Quaker Sunday school, or you don't believe in God, or that I don't believe in God. We're stuck with this.' "
On his own political convictions
"I'm pretty incoherent. I walk around believing that I have strong coherent positions and that they're strongly reflected in my behavior and my choices and my speech, much more than I suspect is really the case. I identify with a political life without, I think, successfully living one.
"And sometimes I make these halting gestures, and they mean a lot to me when I make them. I'll pick a cause and I'll be doing what I can for it, in this muddle that we call life, and then I think I sometimes also wander away a lot, too. So I'm nothing clear at all."
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