Outborough Destiny: Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens”

By Lee KonstantinouSeptember 8, 2013

Outborough Destiny: Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens”

IN 2004, The New York Times reported on the effort of the borough of Queens to find a replacement for Hal Sirowitz, its departing poet laureate, “one of those rare New York writers who is willing — eager, in fact — to identify himself with the borough.” The qualifications for the position were simple: “The winner must be someone who has lived in Queens for at least five years and has written, in English, ‘poetry inspired by the borough.’” But finding someone who met both criteria proved more difficult than expected. Compared to other boroughs — especially Manhattan and Brooklyn — the Times concluded that “[t]he muse has been less kind to Queens.” Submissions ranged from poems celebrating the fact that the city’s two airports were housed in the borough to odes to those felled on Queens Boulevard, America’s premiere Boulevard of Death.

With Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem — now, inconveniently for official purposes, a resident of California — makes a belated bid for the job of the borough’s poet laureate. Lethem’s longstanding willingness to traverse borders, whether of culture, race, or genre, carries him away from his beloved Brooklyn into what his narrator calls “that impossible homeland of steaming stacks and tombstones.” Dissident Gardens suggests that if you can overcome what Lethem calls “Boroughphobia,” you might find in Queens the makings of something like Utopia, a word often hard for American tongues to pronounce without irony.

An assured, expert literary performance by one of our most important writers, Dissident Gardens is a largely plotless, multigenerational novel about the network of characters surrounding Rose Zimmer, a member of the American Communist Party whose husband leaves her, and who must raise their daughter Miriam alone. After being expelled from the Party in 1955 for having an affair with a married black policeman, Douglas Lookins, Rose becomes the “Red Queen” of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, a community of garden homes built around a common courtyard. Rose is at the center of Dissident Gardens; around her, in the thrall of her tremendous gravity, orbit a variety of other characters. These include Rose’s ideologically inflexible ex-husband Albert, their strong-willed hippie daughter Miriam, Miriam’s hapless Irish folk singer husband Tommy Gogan, Rose’s scheming nephew Lenin “Lenny” Angrush, Douglas’s gay black obese professor son Cicero, and Miriam and Tommy’s gentle musician son, Sergius. Each of these characters earns at least a chapter. Together, their stories form a collective portrait of the left from the Popular Front of the 1930s through the counterculture through the postmodern 1980s to immediately after the apparent end of the Occupy movement.

The conceit at the core of Dissident Gardens is that Rose Zimmer is a one-woman embodiment of the Old Left, whose survival, memory, and sheer force of personality might help keep a revolutionary flame alive after the disasters of Stalinism, anticommunism, countercultural self-immolation, Reaganism, and the Global War on Terror. “Every day walking on Queens Boulevard she drew a stare less,” Lethem writes:

For each man whom earlier would have glanced in her direction Rose felt herself becoming less the woman and more the political animal, or perhaps more the moral scold. For she’d become radiant with disapproval, to trump anyone who’d dream of rebuking her from the right or the left for her unique position as a political exile, a political conundrum. The embattled Party wanted nothing to do with her, and the anticommunist throng didn’t know what to do with an unshamable Red. The more she involved herself with civic causes like the library and the Block-Watchers the more impossible and integral she became. Sunnyside’s own whatever. Look out, she’s coming. Prepare for a civic lecture. Don’t litter or make reference to Sputnik.

Rose’s “integral” political power arises from her iconoclasm, and her pragmatic determination to involve herself in civic life. “My feet when they walk touch the sidewalks of Queens, they don’t float above,” Rose tells one of her former comrades. “My beliefs don’t deliver me from a responsibility to the poor degraded human souls in front of my face.” It is evident that Lethem has not abandoned the concern for place that characterizes his earlier novels. For Lethem, the history of Queens and the history of the left are inextricably linked. To write a novel of Queens, to imagine a character like Rose, is one small way of resisting the urge to succumb to the merciless hand of history, to redeem “the poor degraded human souls” of an “outer borough” invisible to power.

The difficulties inherent in this project of redemption are evident in the novel’s greatest human creation, Lenny Angrush, whose contradictory personality speaks to the problems and opportunities of writing a political novel about the cultural life of Queens. Lenny is a revolutionary hustler, always pursuing business plots that go wrong. One of the borough’s last self-conscious leftists, Lenny experiences a different fate than Rose: “Lenny, despite his advanced and esoteric interests — global revolution, chess, numismatics — grew to talk like a chestnut vendor, an iceman, a head emerging from a manhole.” By contrast, “[n]o child of Rose’s would ever come of age to speak in the fershlugginer tongue of Queens, distinguished from the stigma of the Brooklyn accent primarily by its nagging and lethargic undertones.” Lenny’s most daring dream, concocted after the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers flee to California, is of “socialist baseball.” He harangues Bill Shea, the lawyer who founded the Continental League and helped create the New York Mets, trying to convince him to found a Continental League team called The Sunnyside Proletarians, “the baseball organization of, by, and for the working man.” After presenting the harebrained idea to Shea’s secretary, Lenny quickly explains, “They’ll be known as the Pros, of course.”

In Lenny’s offhand “of course” we behold the fate of the Old Left, and better understand why “the fershlugginer tongue of Queens” might seem “lethargic” to a hardened leftist like Rose, not to mention today’s most talented and sophisticated novelists. The Sunnyside Pros. In the ambiguity of the name — its cautious masking of proletarian beneath professional — we glimpse a lexical microhistory of the changing class landscape of the United States, the political shift from imagining that political agency might be found among organized workers (a proletariat) to a countercultural fantasy that students and white-collar workers (that is, professionals as a class) might become the new revolutionary agent of history.

Cicero Lookins, whom Lethem describes as a “monster of skepticism,” embodies this trajectory from proletarian to professional. Born to working class black parents, he sets off on a long march through the institutions, starting with his admission to Princeton and ending in a comfortable sinecure at a college in Maine. Other characters undertake similar journeys. After he leaves the United States, Rose’s ex-husband Albert ends up working as a teacher at an East German reeducation camp, as he informs Miriam in a letter: “The Werkhofinstitut Rosa Luxemburg, though it goes among those of us here by a nickname, Gärten der Dissidenz, which I suppose one might translate as ‘Dissident Gardens,’ however droll this may sound to you.” Rose herself works as a bookkeeper, a mental worker par excellence, though she takes great pains to insist that being able to “add a column of numbers accurately didn’t put me one step above the delivery boys or for that matter the horses dragging the carts.” Nonetheless, Rose comes to realize that her fantasies of success within the CP bureaucracy are themselves a kind of professional striving. “How bourgeois, finally, the aspiration to succeed socially within the CP!” she thinks.

In short, with the collapse of leftist hopes in proletariat revolution, the New Left began to put its faith in a different sort of pro, and the artistic results of this shift in priorities couldn’t be clearer. The proletarian fiction of writers like Mike Gold, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos became deeply unfashionable at around the same time that many leftist intellectuals ceased thinking of the working class as the agent of history. It was in the 1950s and ’60s that American literary artists decided once and for all that political message-mongering strangled great art, an ideological position that entailed, in practice, a renewed attention to middle-class professional life as a subject for fiction. “The whole century had vacated Sunnyside Gardens,” Lethem writes, in a chapter set in 1978. Which is not to say that Sunnyside Gardens was vacated of human beings, or of human stories. What changed was the left’s conception of where, and among which class, history was happening. Facing her own “outborough destiny,” Rose nonetheless understands that “in the vast no of Queens, one made a life.” Miriam, though she lives in Manhattan, also understands that life goes on in the outer boroughs:

The F [train] […] wasn’t in any intrinsic sense a phenomenon of Manhattan, no matter what an oblivious Manhattanite might think. The line threaded far quadrants of Queens, Kew Gardens, Jackson Heights, acres only marshland when those worker’s precincts had first been plotted and the stations named.

Despite the existence of myriad working class stories, our great literary pros have divested themselves from the “vast no” that constitutes, in blandly statistical terms, the great bulk of American life. Working class life, when it does manifest, appears either as pathology or as an unlucky origin from which characters seek to flee as quickly as possible. As the literary critic Mark McGurl has shown, even the stories of writers concerned with the experience ordinary working stiffs such as Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver largely dramatize fantasies of escape from shameful lower-middle class origins into the proud tenured paradise of the university.

The working class’s disappearance from post-1945 literature is analogous to the disappearance, within Lethem’s text, of Cicero Lookins’s mother, Diane. Next to Rose’s blindingly intense personality, Cicero’s mother’s life becomes invisible, even to Cicero himself, hardly worthy of narrative interest or emotional investment. “Who’d etch her legend into the world?” Cicero wonders. “The fact excluded […] was, merely, that of Diane Lookins’ entire existence. She didn’t fit in the puzzle.” She is “the woman cut to drift in the vacuum silence of her distress.”

The crisis of Diane’s invisibility dominates Cicero’s attention when Rose’s grandson, Sergius Gogan, comes to visit him in Maine. The confrontation between Cicero and Sergius results in a hilarious — and deeply awkward — scene in which Cicero tries to get his undergraduate students to talk about their mothers in a class that Sergius is observing. Cicero tells them, “Let’s remind ourselves of that term Christopher Bollas calls ‘the unthought known’ — the recognitions we refuse to fully articulate precisely because they are too much with us at every present moment.” A perplexed student replies: “You want me to talk about something like catching my mother watching internet porn? Not that I’m saying that actually happened, because it didn’t.”

It’s not only that Cicero registers his mother’s invisibility here; Lethem, too, seems to register something telling about “the unthought known” of his own novel. Though many minor characters each earn a chapter, Diane Lookins doesn’t. Lethem seems uninterested in etching her legend into the world. Her struggles can only come to us through the mediation of Cicero, a professional whose language has become hardened with the jargon of academic theory, an idiom Lethem imitates masterfully.

Diane’s absence speaks to the broader fate, both historical and literary, of the American working class in a world whose revolutionary force is imagined to be made up of elite professionals. Under these pressures, the working class fractures into competing factions. Black workers come under the professional management of characters like Cicero, whose relationship to his race involves sorting through the meaning of his mother’s absence, of devoting his tremendous intelligence to the problem of juggling his multiple conflicting identities. He’s “Baginstock College’s miraculous triple token, gay, black, and overweight,” Lethem writes.

The white working class, meanwhile, liquidates their European ethnic differences, the rough markers that once seemed so important, into a monolithic mass of pure, aggrieved whiteness. Leaving aside Lenny, whose contradictory class-consciousness Lethem takes great pains to underscore, white working class characters appear nowhere in Dissident Gardens except through popular media and leftist fantasy. Near the end of Rose’s life, the white working class appear, if nowhere else, on her “splendid new color television.” They’re denizens of the fictional Kelsey’s Bar (later renamed Archie Bunker’s Place), located, naturally enough, in Astoria, Queens. In a bravura chapter, Lethem traces Rose’s deranged affections for Bunker, the protagonist of Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcom All in the Family, and her second great imaginary lover, after Abraham Lincoln. Losing her mental moorings because of encroaching social isolation and old age, she falls in love with Archie and begins to fantasize about entering her television to spend her final days with him. Eventually able to “journey back at will,” Rose becomes a regular at Kelsey’s, and gets to know Archie and his chums. During her visits, Archie and Rose confront each other with increasing intensity; the sexual tension builds. Archie’s scripted bigotry leads her to reflect upon the meaning of her lifelong political commitments. Poignantly attempting to make sense of her leftism, she decides:

[She has] renounced nothing; ideals that had sustained her a lifetime still sustained her, because they weren’t ideological, not even really ideals. They existed in the space between one person and another, secret sympathies of the body […] You found it at the counter of a White Castle, lunching on boiled eggs […] And now, at a boor’s tavern on Northern Boulevard.

Rose describes this feeling, her vision of political solidarity as grounded in affect rather than ideology, using the term comraderism. She steals the suggestive word from Archie:

One afternoon Archie, resplendent surrealist poet, gave Rose’s secret mood a name. “Comraderism.” He’d been trying to name the feeling between himself and the others there [at Kelsey’s], the men whom he lashed with insults when he wasn’t driving them into muttering perplexity at his baroque views on the Polish (“people of the Polack persuasion lean toward what you might call a certain lack of drive”), the Italians (“Packed into the subway like sardines we was, with no lights and no fans and me standing next to a three-hundred pound Eyetalian, half of which was pure garlic), and eschatology (“You liberals got more ways for the world to end than a dog has fleas”) […]  The various men who populated the bar were, despite any protestations to the contrary, in Archie’s pocket, under his sway, and Rose no less than any of them. More, she had the audacity to believe she was other than invisible to him, to think he might feel something for her.

A passage like this has many moving parts, which Lethem effortlessly coordinates. On the one hand, he dramatizes Rose’s fantasy of her own invisibility, her insignificance before a vibrant and well-represented working class. Though technically powerless, members of this class manage nonetheless to control their own lives, and even have opportunities to become small-scale capitalists (when Archie buys Kelsey’s). Their communism of spirit is, it seems, a spontaneous outflowing of existence. On the other hand, the whole scene is a fantasy, twice removed. Lethem ends the chapter by writing, “Applause. Credits,” reminding us of the fictive nature of Rose’s reverie, and signaling the error in her attitude toward politics at the end of her life. By Lethem’s reckoning, the white working class has made a utopian refuge out of consumption, and the substitution of communism with comraderism is hardly a hopeful development.

Making matters trickier, Lethem faces artistic problems of his own in the above passage. Whereas Rose and Miriam speak standard English, the beautiful prose style that is the novel’s default idiom, “the fershlugginer tongue of Queens” can come to us only through multiple filters. First, this argot is mediated through All in the Family, itself a second-order representation of the borough’s bigoted working stiffs: proletarian life as told by television professionals. Second, Archie Bunker’s voice is filtered through Lethem’s own prose style (“You liberals got more ways for the world to end than a dog has fleas”), which is itself a representation not of All in the Family but of Rose’s delirious experience of the program.

All of these complicated mediations point to the fact that Dissident Gardens is never able to fully make contact with the working class (or the language of the working class) whose exploitation is ostensibly the motor for generations of leftist activists. The working class is, in this way, much like Lack, the temperamental void created by a particle accelerator at the center of Lethem’s lovely science fiction satire, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997). In his captivating rendition of Archie Bunker, Lethem gives a human shape to the void — a different Lack — at the heart of Dissident Gardens. For all his careful realism, Lethem’s novelistic attention never squarely lands on any actual working class character. Queens, too, becomes a kind of present absence, an emptiness at the center of the novel. By the end of Dissident Gardens, Rose is dead, and Lethem’s characters have scattered: to Maine, to Nicaragua, to rural Pennsylvania, and to the alien inner borough of Manhattan.

In observing the presence of this working-class Lack, I don’t mean to criticize Lethem; I can’t help but think that the absence of the working class from Dissident Gardens is part of his literary design. Can you imagine the critical response to a novel that solely featured the voices of the working class, a novel that took seriously the task of rendering the inner lives of working stiffs whose aims weren’t to become creative professionals (as almost every character in Dissident Gardens aspires to become), a novel that was invested in the final instance in representing the lives and struggles of proletarians rather than professionals? Who would create such a novel in 2013? Who would read it? What would it mean to write about an outer borough and not have one’s face turned constantly inward toward the world’s capital of capital?

That Lethem has taken us so close to the Promised Land of a rejuvenated proletarian fiction with this magnificent novel gives us reason to be hopeful. Dissident Gardens may also be a symptom of a much needed correction in American literary culture, also signaled by the publication of novels such as Chris Bachelder’s U.S.!, Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, and Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic. As readers and writers, we might soon be ready for the next step. If our most talented artists are able to turn the fantasy of Rose Zimmer as a one-woman standard-bearer of the left into really existing political fiction, we might all in time become Sunnyside Pros, and speak with a greater measure of ease the furshlugginer tongue of Queens.


Lee Konstantinou is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and an associate editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Lee Konstantinou is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse (2009) and the literary history Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (2016). With Samuel Cohen, he co-edited The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (2012). He is currently completing a study of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai.


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