Dissident Gardens is a Contender

For the Great American Novel.

Inasmuch as one ought to exist. Inasmuch as we’d know it now, if we happened upon it.

Glibly, the GAN is a bit like the Jewish Messiah: a concept that shapes our experience, that many people contest, and that, if it ever arrived, would signify the end of the world and life as we know it. And what fun would that be. Plus there’s the whole Jesus thing.

(Clearly, I’m not the kind of Jew who forswears her Twitter feed on the Shabbos. Ahem.)

For reals, here was my first reaction to Dissident Gardens, a basically plotless novel about 3 generations of secular Jewish lefties:


Mensch that he is, I’d often wondered and never cared enough to run the google search. Because, also, googling a variant of “Jewish” is usually a grim reminder of the timelessness of religious/ethnic hatreds.

And then my second reaction was OH! HE MADE TWO WOMEN the MAIN CHARACTERS! Usually dude writers don’t do that. Or, if they do, I don’t usually care for such depictions. But he’s a mensch, as I’ve said.

And what’s a Jewish novel without an intimidating, overly emotional, borderline-psychotic mother figure at the center of all characters’ psychosocial problems?

Break it down: do we review “ethnic” literature’s specificity? The way that Dissident Gardens is, in fact, a novel about Jewish American experience? Or do we review its “universality”–the way it attempts to help us feel the history of the post-30s American left? Or do we skip all that and review how it treats women? Or black, queer, fat academics?

The history of the American left is as Jewish as it is about Civil Rights, feminism, and Stonewall. The occupation of Alcatraz. So go, Lethem, for reminding us that women, Jews, and black people are as American as anyone else.

Lethem has always been concerned with life at the margins of US culture and pushed those margins into the center of our vision. This (classic deconstructionist) move is America. A conglomeration of marginal identities fighting for centrality. Occupying the center, however briefly.

But reviews of this novel have tended to break along broad categories. Which is fine. The “mainstream” reviews ignore the novel’s Jewishness and the reviews (really, I just found one) in Jewish mags focus on its Jewishness. What else could they do, really? It’s a big novel about a big topic.


So let’s try to simplify:

Jewishness: Raise your hand if you’re an American Jew whose relatives, a few generations back, identified (or perhaps were employed) as socialists or Communists. OK. That’s what I thought.

Raise your hand if you mourn your loss of knowledge of this generation in your family. Raise your hand if you read this novel in an attempt to recover some kind of cultural knowledge of 30s Jewish leftism because personal family relations are built around emptiness and loss and we seek out novels to fill those holes.

That said, does the novel adequately cover the history of Jewish American leftiness? I guess not? Here’s Adam Kirsch:

Here we see the central idea of Dissident Gardens, which is also its central weakness. Politics, for Lethem, can only be conceived in characterological terms. This is a sign that he is a novelist of our own time, which believes in individuals and not classes or movements. … At her core, in fact, Rose is simply a Jewish mother from hell, and if Dissident Gardens is on one level a story about radical inheritances, it is at the same time about the inheritance of trauma—the multigenerational effects of a monster in the family.

The problem with this equation is that it falsifies the reality of what left politics meant to Jews of Rose’s generation.

We are a society of individuals now, even on the left. And of course the novel reflects that. But I believe that the novel critiques this cultural turn, as well, in the way it mourns the loss of our belief in community and collectives.

Furthermore, Lethem takes a feminist approach to politics: it’s personal. It’s about families, and sex, and love. You can’t take sex out of the 60s anymore than you can take it out of the 30s. Anymore than you can take it out of any attempt to build a utopian commune-ity in the suburban borough of Queens—matriarch Rose Zimmer lands in Sunnyside Gardens because of marital tension.

I have not found many novels that take on the complex history of the American Jewish left. The ways that Soviet history destroyed US socialism and Communism—at the level of personal feeling. The ways that the Holocaust was almost a foreign tragedy to US Jews whose families had immigrated a generation or two before it and whose lives were dedicated to socialist ideals. The ways that secular Jewish culture is American culture, as American as Bob Dylan and planned communities. The only way to get a proper history of the American Jewish left is to write history. Which will most likely leave out feelings. And feelings are central to politics.

Which leads is to the next category: The Wimmins.

Kirsch and Sady Doyle argue that the novel’s central characters, Rose and Miriam, are male fantasies of oversexed, overly emotional Jewish women who are punished for their sexual activities. In an ungenerous reading, yes, those characters are indeed stereotypical. And their doomed endings are part of a longstanding sexist Puritan strain in our culture. But I’m inclined to give Lethem a chance. In part because I found these characters to have far more depth than that.

Rose, the volatile, intellectual matriarch of the novel, is particularly sympathetic, even as she shoves her and her daughter’s heads in the oven. Even as she moans and wails out her disappointments in the only ways her community will let her.

The warm, beating heart of the novel is all Rose. In her dementia (spoiler!), she turns to Moses Maimonides, a canonical Jewish philosopher that she’d spurned in her life as a dedicated secular Communist. She tells her pseudo-son, black queer fat academic Cicero Lookins, that Maimonides is the key to understanding why Communism failed in the US.

“God creates the world by going out of the world. … If He’s here, He takes up all the room. It’s only by leaving that He opens a region of possibility for anything else. For all this to occur. … This is the reason we never had a revolution in America! … Capitalism wouldn’t get out of the way. We couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t begin to exist. It filled all available space.”

“The God that Refused to Fail?”


“You did okay, though, Rose. You existed for a while.”

This novel is about how America kills its idealists. And paves over idealism to build malls, artisanal pickle shops, and a security apparatus nearly as brutal as any other.

Lethem’s darkest, smartest, and best novel.

A novel about America.

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