When a hologram is shattered — or so I learned as a kid watching a PBS documentary — each shard still allows the viewer to gaze upon the whole from which it broke off. Something similar may be said of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, “Dissident Gardens,” which concerns three generations of thwarted idealists. Pick any reasonably-size chunk from this alternately energizing and enervating work and chances are you’ll get a sense of its entirety: the thrilling erudition; the breathless pop culture references and digressions; the pervasive mournfulness; and, yes, as with the art of holography, the fairly convincing illusion of three dimensionality.
The novel takes its title from a nickname given to Sunnyside Gardens, a “Socialist Utopian Village” built in Queens, N.Y., in the 1920s. The gardens, writes Lethem, were envisioned as “a humane environment grounded in deep theory, houses bounded around courtyard gardens, neighbors venting their lives one to another across a shared commons.” And “Dissident Gardens” is structured on similar principles — a busy novel about the inevitable downfall of a family and a political philosophy that skips back and forth across time to create its own vibrant neighborhood of memorable individuals.