Born to Be Red

By | Dec 03, 2013
Guest Blog

Dissident Gardens

Jonathan Lethem
2013, pp. 384, $27.95 

Review by Lydia Kiesling

Born to Be Red

Before I began reading Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, I was advised to obtain a copy of Vivian Gornick’s Romance of American Communism for a little crash course on its context. Although the deeply knowledgeable proprietor of my local radical bookshop, Bolerium Books (“Fighting Commodity Fetishism with Commodity Fetishism”), informed me that Gornick’s collective memoir of American communism is hardly the authoritative text on the subject, it turned out to make a satisfying accompaniment to Dissident Gardens. Lethem is indebted to Gornick—he thanks her in his acknowledgments—and it is clear that he has borrowed from the recollections she assembled. Readers are likewise indebted to Lethem for distilling these personalities, and this immense but ultimately moribund force in American political life, into one electrifying novel.

The biographical sketches that make up Gornick’s book together describe communism as the consciousness of people who “had no external nationhood…The only nationhood to which they had attained was the nationhood inside their minds: the nationhood of the international working class.” Lethem has a demonstrated interest in the citizenry of amorphous, borderless nations: motherlessness, adolescence, a Brooklyn block. In The Fortress of Solitude, published a decade ago, the plot centers around the relationship between two boys, one white, one black, who hold citizenship in all three states. Communism is the perfect new frontier for Lethem: It is a vast imagined community that was able to carve out territory on the map, its borders becoming less porous by the day, reducing from one massive, glorious idea to Stalinist dictatorship, Siberian gulag and a paranoid warren of underground cells in America.

Rose Angrush Zimmer, the matriarch of Dissident Gardens, meets her husband under the auspices of one such cell. Both communists, Rose and Albert are separated only by a class divide that will be swept away in the Revolution just around the corner; they marry “against the skepticism of two armies made of different species of Jewish uncles, aunts, and cousins.” Unfortunately, Rose married a man who failed equally to distinguish himself at communism and fatherhood. He is hustled out of the country by the Party on a spying mission to Germany, leaving his wife with her convictions and their daughter Miriam, whom she raises in Sunnyside Gardens, a utopian community in Queens. Rose is herself eventually hustled out of the Party for sleeping with a black Republican cop. Her only consolation—the anguish of the Party at the betrayal revealed during Nikita Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress—is cold comfort, since communism is “Rose’s calling and purpose…the sole accomplishment of her life, short of balancing the pickle factory’s books. It was also, and not incidentally, the sole prospect for the human species.”

While Rose’s expulsion from the Party is proof of the way that communism ultimately failed in its promise to erase ethnic and class divisions, communism did in some ways manage to advance the innate possibilities of disparate groups living side by side. In Dissident Gardens, these products of ideology and proximity are a pair of almost-cousins: Cicero Lookins, a fat, gay, Princeton-educated college professor and the child of the aforementioned black Republican cop, and Sergius Gogan, a “full hippy,” “half secular Jew” and pseudo-Quaker, the child of Miriam and a washed-up Irish folksinger named Tommy Gogan.

Cicero overflows with resentment toward Rose Zimmer, who took a motherly interest in the child of her lover and became the formative influence in his young life. He expresses this resentment by lobbing racial Molotov cocktails at colleagues and acquaintances who consign him to the role of “career magical Negro”:

For Cicero, censure of a blatant racist or homophobe was not only useless but fatally boring. The power residing in such accusations was best wielded at random, against the more avowedly sympathetic correct colleague or student. Cicero routinely dropped a casual ‘But of course, you realize you’re a racist’ into friendly interactions. The less evidence on hand, the more destabilizing the result.

If Sergius—the child whom Miriam, in the service of her many causes, shunted around cooperative living situations and into confrontations with state power—seems somewhat of a nonentity by comparison, it is less a failing of the novelist than of his parents. Miriam and Tommy orphan their child by going off blithely to Nicaragua to resist passively among the Sandinistas and meeting a predictable fate. Sergius’s childhood is spent at a Quaker boarding school being parented by a drooping, lovelorn music teacher. He masters the art of passive resistance by endlessly playing a single level of an arcade game, evading bomber planes without firing a shot.

There are different kinds of communists in Dissident Gardens. There is the unfortunate Lenin Angrush, tortured by consanguineous love for Miriam, obsessed with the project of getting his new baseball team, The Proletarians, into the new Shea stadium: “Urban Socialistic baseball would rise to demolish the monopoly teams. The Yankees had Mantle, his jingoistic home runs. The Pros had Carl Heuman’s dialectical curveball.” There is Rose Zimmer, whose expulsion from the party can never extinguish her essential Marxist identity. Miriam, meanwhile, grows up to be a sexy “bolshevik of the five senses,” which makes for epic conflagrations with her mother. When Rose finds Miriam entangled with a young man, she berates her thus: “You’d rather learn the way a man’s schlong works, seemingly. You’d rather attend the college of sexual intercourse!” In the political chronology that Gornick sketches out at the end of her book, “first had come the visionary socialists of the nineteenth century, then had come the fierce politicalness of the communists, and now had come the unaffiliated Marxist consciousness of contemporary radicals.” But Miriam, in the latter camp, is still her mother’s daughter, an autodidact intellectual crackling with life and notions of justice. Even her child-rearing is the hippie incarnation of something her mother knew back in the 1930s: “Babies were dropped at upstairs apartments for an hour, or for three or four hours—babies, to Rose’s understanding, thrived on a density of other babies and their mothers, in rooms streaming with aunts and cousins, kitchens blazing.”

In one of Cicero’s courses, he prods his students with an idea from a Doris Lessing character who believes that “the problem with all utopian ideologies is they pit themselves against the tyranny of the bourgeois family, and that it’s basically hopeless.” Contrary to this prognosis, the large part of Gornick’s interviews with American communists past and present reveals people who would and did abandon family and friends in service of the party, either to “go to industry” and organize workers from within, or to go underground and run safe houses, or sometimes, like Rose’s husband, to permanently decamp for Germany. Several of Gornick’s subjects echo the spirit of this interviewee’s assertion: “I would have left my wife if necessary. I thought to myself, she can always get another husband but there’s only one Party.”

Lethem’s novel finds the center of the compass, describing exquisitely the wounds that the bourgeois family and communism inflicted on one another, so that both were irreparably harmed. This crowded, wonderful novel manages to be at once exuberant and overwhelmingly sad. With picturesque characters who miraculously avoid caricature, Lethem makes us feel both the tremendous promise of a revolutionary time and the desolation left in its wake.

Lydia Kiesling is a staff writer for The Millions, where she writes literary criticism and a semi-regular column, The Modern Library Revue. Her writing has appeared at Slate and Bullett.

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