I know in the great scheme of things, not enjoying a new book by one of your favourite authors doesn’t really rank up there with the worst things that can happen in a person’s life – but, at the same time, as a serious reader, it’s certainly up there when it comes to things that can really spoil an individual day. I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Lethem since Fortress of Solitude. That was my entry point, and since then I’ve read both forward and back, fiction and nonfiction, short stories and graphic novels, liking some things more than others but not outright disliking anything. Until now.
Lethem’s ninth novel, Dissident Gardens, is probably best described as a sort of multi-generational, chronologically non-linear epic. Over the course of 360 odd pages, we spend time in the company of Rose, her daughter Miriam, Miriam’s son, Sergius, cousin Lenny, and a guy called Cicero who is the son of a lover Rose once had. We begin in 1955 (as Rose, her life ‘nothing but one long heartbreak’, a woman who ‘knew too much, was too complicit with the twentieth century to be merely its victim’, is being thrown out of the Communist Party by one of her former lovers), skip forward with Miriam into the 60s, jump possibly into the 90s or 00s when Cicero is a grown man, skip back to Cicero as a 13 year old boy learning valuable lessons at the hands of Miriam and Lenny, then back with Lenny as he tries to name a football team then across town to Miriam on a quiz show, then back, to when Rose was younger, in the company of her husband. Forward and back, most of the time not entirely moored to a specific time (the reader floats somewhat through Lethem’s story, trying to work out the when and where – and the why).
There are points to be made, of course. Connections. Reflections. The failure of American Communism, the failure of families, the failures of individuals. How all of it links up. But there is not a story here. Lethem works quite hard to diffuse narrative tension. We learn very early on that a major character dies in a bomb at some point – so I can reveal it to you, it isn’t a spoiler. There is nothing that happens in the book that we are not told about in advance. The action of the book is consistently subverted (whatever you think may be about to happen, won’t – or will because he has told us it will a number of times) but it isn’t replaced by anything else. Dissident Gardens feels like a novel told by a gastronomic bore, so many sentences bursting at the seams, so many incidents ripe with translatable meaning:
‘In Rose’s lava of disappointment the ideals of American Communism had gone to die their slow death eternally; Rose would never die precisely because she needed to live forever, a flesh monument commemorating Socialism’s failure as an intimate wound.’
It’s like Motherless Brooklyn‘s Lionel Essrog has been resurrected in order to fill us in on all of the detail of a half dozen or so people who represent America, or Jewishness, or Communism, or simply activism, over the course of a half century or so – but like Lionel in Motherless Brooklyn, the narrator can’t simply speak – he must qualify, digress, step aside and around. Time and again, this reader found himself stopping, no longer certain where the sentence was going, returning to the beginning, re-reading, attention wandering, completely unmoored from the book. There is a sense in which Lethem almost doesn’t trust the reader to make the connections that would be implicit in a better book – he has to tell us everything, and then he has to qualify that and explain and make a comparison and underline it in red, twice, and point and touch our shoulder and say, you get that, don’t you, what I just said, yeah?
There are parts of the book that work (a short chapter in which Miriam’s father writes to her is particularly affecting, as are moments featuring Miriam, one of the few characters in the novel to emerge from beneath the avalanche of words) but more often than not it felt to this reader like an unconscionable grind, like Bolano at his worst (although it should be said there is also something of Philip Roth to proceedings – the Roth of Operation Shylock – but it feels like Lethem doing an impression of Roth, and not a good one at that). Dissident Gardens is a novel concerning people for whom (or for some of whom) theory is important – but a novel has to be more than theory, has to be more than clothes horses draped in theory. For some people, Dissident Gardens is evidence that Lethem has finally grown up; for others, it is ‘crowded and wonderful’; for still others, the book’s ‘too-much-information’ moments don’t detract or distract from the entertaining whole. Not so for this reader. You can’t help but appreciate the breadth of the research, the scope of the ambition, the verve and the energy – but it isn’t enough. Lethem recreates the folk scene in New York (such that, I’m sure, there will be reviewers who make connections between this book and the new Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewellyn Davies), indeed life in New York, better than he ever has. He allows his characters to take in the twentieth century (from McCarthyism to Nicaragua, from the Holocaust to Occupy) – but it is heady, invading your private space, a fever dream, unrelenting and ultimately boring. Yes, boring.
Dissident Gardens was a book this reader read perpetually flicking ahead. How many more pages in this chapter? How many more chapters in this section? There was a point, around the 200 page mark, as I was travelling between London and Manchester on a train that was delayed due to flooding, when I genuinely wondered if I would ever get to the end (although, curiously, I never admitted defeat – I knew I would persevere, out of loyalty to Lethem, and the enjoyment his books have provided over the years). I can acknowledge that there will be readers of Dissident Gardens who will love it, who quite possibly think it is the best thing he has ever done. But for me, the experience of reading the book was akin to the agony of reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Not for me.
Any Cop?: Heartbreaking – genuinely – and disappointing.