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.
Here dwelleth Rose Zimmer, née Angrush, soon to be ousted from the Communist Party for her dalliance with a black police officer named Douglas Lookins, and Rose’s daughter, Miriam, a “raven-haired Jewess with a vocabulary like Lionel Trilling.” Rose and Miriam were deserted early on by German-born Albert Zimmer, who quit what passed for communism in New York’s outer boroughs in favor of the real thing in East Germany. Miriam will grow up to marry Irish folksinger Tommy Gogan, join a commune, and give birth to Sergius Gogan, who, after his parents die during an ill-conceived trip to Nicaragua, will become a pacifist and involved with a member of the Occupy movement.
The historical breadth of “Dissident Gardens,’’ spanning from 1955 to nearly the present day, coupled with the novel’s vast array of characters, allows Lethem to consider a fair number of doomed leftist visions while riffing on some favorite topics: baseball, particularly the New York Mets; pop music, particularly Bob Dylan; video games; academia; and New York itself. Lenny Angrush, who, for decades, nurses an unrequited crush on his cousin Miriam, imagines replacing the departed Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants with a professional ball club called the Sunnyside Proletarians. Tommy falls under Miriam’s Yoko Ono-ish spell and deserts his corny folk career as one-third of the Gogan Brothers in favor of writing earnest ballads from the perspectives of members of the black underclass. While attending the Quaker-run Pendle Acre School, Sergius achieves a Zen mastery of nonviolence in video games. Meanwhile, Cicero Lookins, son of Miriam’s lover, Douglas, becomes a gay, obese, dreadlocked professor at Baginstock College, lecturing students about Doris Lessing and the inevitable failure of utopian ideologies.
Lethem’s fans will find much to enjoy here. However, readers with more traditional expectations and desires — say, a compelling story line or engaging, plausible characters — will have to endure some fairly baroque plotting as well as long, indulgent passages that can have a hit-or-miss quality. Describing the lot of a communist in America, Lethem’s prose crackles with wit and insight: “By 1959 nobody said ‘I am a Communist’ except in a Hollywood flick, either a swarthy heavy making a dying confession, expiring words from a body riddled with FBI lead, or some tubercular, misguided kid, maybe Robert Walker or Farley Granger, facing up to consequences of his treasonous acts.” However, an extended fantasy sequence in which Rose, beginning to succumb to dementia, conducts a conversation with Archie Bunker of “All in the Family,’’ fails to convince or engage.
When Lethem is at his best (e.g., “The Fortress of Solitude,’’ “Motherless Brooklyn,’’ and about half of “Dissident Gardens’’) he either quells his tendency toward logorrhea or uses it in the service of his characters and plot. But, here, his riffs can be suffocating. The author is fond of making the same point or repeating historical factoids, i.e., Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was actually born a Brooklyn Jew; Jackie Robinson was an Eisenhower Republican. When Tommy falls for Miriam, Lethem allows himself two consecutive extended metaphors where one would have been sufficient: “Her attentions had seemed to him like a glorious bottle into which he’d hope to slip himself and then expand, like a model ship, sails tucked until the moment they rose to occupy every corner. Instead, he felt like a lightning bug, zooming inside only to be swallowed, rebounding against the impassive glass, pulsing a small light so as not to be lost inside.”
At times, “Dissident Gardens” suggests a four-hour “director’s cut” of a film that would have worked much better at the studio-sanctioned two-hour length. Some of the most affecting sequences transpire well past the novel’s 300th page when you assume the author will be wrapping things up. Somewhere, a terrific, compelling saga seems to be waiting to emerge — Lethem makes several references to “Buddenbrooks,’’ Thomas Mann’s classic novel subtitled “The Decline of a Family’’ — but one has to wade through a lot of excess material to find it. But then again, maybe this just affirms the fates Lethem has written for his characters. For, in most cases, what is a novel but another form of failed communal vision, an idealistic but naive attempt to create the illusion of a whole from disparate pieces that can never truly be joined together?