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Queens As a Metaphor for the World: On Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens

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Using the New York City borough of Queens as a linchpin, Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, questions the American twentieth century’s “great comedy: that Communism had never existed, not once. So what was there to oppose?” Yet, every character in this book, which seamlessly bobs in and out of the last century’s decades and into the recent past of Occupy Wall Street, leads a life of great opposition, resisting everything their eras throw at them: electrified rock ‘n’ roll drowning out the pacifist strumming of folk music; the painfully belated attention, and lack thereof, from distant parents; the “ritual compliance” to TSA indignities. At the core of this resistance are two women, Rose Zimmer and her daughter Miriam. Steeped in Marxism but having no choice but to cope with how “true Communism had floated free of history, like smoke,” after Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin, this cell of two takes shape, a solidarity of dignified disappointment.

The ghosts of European Diaspora drive Rose’s husband back to his native Germany, leaving the two Zimmer women in Sunnyside Gardens, a still-standing 1,200-unit planned community built around communal gardens. It is here, only six stops away from Manhattan on the 7 train, where community organizing blurs with neighborly nosiness and Rose and Miriam anneal their individual strengths through clashes that demonstrate the women’s similarities. Their time living together comes to an end after a precocious teenage Miriam, Rose’s “renegade self” who has skipped her last year of high school, brings home a young man. Rose discovers the two of them in Miriam’s bedroom and after the suitor is permitted to leave, Rose, having turned on the gas, crawls into the oven before removing herself to shove in Miriam, an episode of utter histrionics that will haunt both women for the rest of their lives. But before the suitor is sent on his way so mother and daughter can tussle, Rose declares: “I tried to raise a young woman but apparently produced an American teenager in her place.”

Spend enough time in Queens and you will invariably hear such lamentations from foreign-born parents raising their children in this melting pot borough, explaining why it plays a central role in this novel. True, all of New York is a melting pot, but Queens has always been a remarkable amalgam of multiple nationalities living in close proximity, maintaining aspects of home while embracing New World attitudes. These hybrid identities, however, test and taunt Rose, Miriam, and their chess-playing, numismatist cousin Lenny Angrush, all committed Communists with increasingly less to share in common with their comrades. As Lenny says, “Fuck the amnesia of Communists who’d conveniently forgotten they were Communists, of the immigrants who’d forgotten they were immigrants.”

Miriam moves to Manhattan; her son Sergius is sent to a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania; one of Rose’s causes, Cicero Lookins, the overweight, gay son of Rose’s lover, a black, married cop, eventually ends up as a university professor in Maine. But no matter how far any of the characters travel, they cannot escape Queens. Lethem does not let them; the borough exerts a heady presence. He evokes the crazy convergences of streets, avenues, roads, drives, and lanes; he frames the genesis of the Mets as the “death of the Sunnyside Proletarians”; there are flickering-reality interactions with Archie Bunker; the 7 train rising above ground in Long Island City and careening toward Queensboro Plaza against the backdrop of Manhattan is “progress up out of the darkness, scraping moonward into the constellation of streetlights and signage along Jackson Avenue.”

Queens is the perfect metaphor for the world, as it contains the world, making the lives of the Zimmer women universal in that like them, every single one of us must struggle with our own identities in order to understand the identities of others. Frustrated folk singer Tommy Gogan, Miriam’s Irish husband, is jealously in awe of Bob Dylan, thinking his shape-shifting theatrics compromise the integrity of music, of the music’s message. But then he realizes that “Dylan, having shrunken an entire world to his sole person, was terrified by the isolation.” Both Rose and Miriam also fear isolation so they spend their lives trying to expand their worlds through the collective and individual gestures of causes, from workers’ rights to helping Cicero and the Sandinistas. Rose believes that all true Communists die alone, but that is just an easy way to accept that we all die alone: “Always opt for civilization’s brutalities, for the stupidities of the urbane. Not for Rose or Miriam the primal indignity of nature.”

Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude features one of the best endings in all of fiction as father and son drive through a blizzard, listening to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, “two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream.” This is the moment of implicit reconciliation and a nod to how the unexpected can bring together individuals. The characters in Dissident Gardens grow from the expectations of planned, organized communities intended to unify individuals but they spend their lives trying to extract themselves from these contexts only to realize that it is not their individuality that defines them but their solitude.

Dissident Gardens is an intricately detailed meditation on varieties of emotional isolation. When the 7 train charges above ground today the majority of people just keep watching their screens or check their phones for service, oblivious to the surroundings of the borough that most of them call home. The graffiti-adorned 5 Pointz standing resolutely under the growing skyline of Long Island City is no match for Angry Birds or a text message about baby names. Technological connectivity isolates us from our surroundings, and from others. A political ideology meant to unite communities around the skills and abilities of individuals splintered those communities. The irony in both examples is the same – what in theory should bring us together keeps us apart. In Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem leverages this irony, bringing to life characters who want no parts of what they feel connected to but cannot quite latch on to what it is they really need.

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