Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 364 pages. ISBN 9780385534932.

I was very much looking forward to reading the latest book from Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. I had heard Mr. Lethem give a reading and talk at the New York State Writers Institute visiting lecture series, which is hosted on the University at Albany campus, where I work. I had enjoyed his reading and the question and answer session that he held afterwards. I had gotten a copy of Mr. Lethem's book when I attended the Book Expo American convention in New York City's Javits Center in May, and gotten his signature on the title page at that time. I was very fond of two of Mr. Lethem's books that I'd read in the past: Motherless Brooklyn, and Fortress of Solitude, especially the former.

So I was a little disappointed when I realized that I wasn't enjoying this book quite as much. It took me a while (days) to get even a few dozen pages into it, but I attributed that to being distracted with some work-related reading that I was trying to fit in at home. Once I did get more fully engrossed in the book, I realized that I didn't like the characters very much, and I didn't like the plot very much either. Some of the members of my book club felt that there were too many characters and the author shouldn't have gone into so much detail with every one of them. I didn't feel that way, but I just wished there was a character that I liked at least a little bit and whom I could root for.

Each of the characters is selfish in his or her own way. Albert runs off when his daughter is very young, and never returns. Rose is a stubborn, melodramatic, protective, and possessive mother who argues about everything. Miriam is a stubborn, reckless, and careless woman who goes off to join a revolution, leaving her young son behind. How is that different from her father, whom she criticizes for abandoning her? Cicero is an unlikable man who hurts everyone around him. Sergius grows up resenting the only grownup who ever really helps him, and the book ends with him making one foolish decision after another.

Jonathan Lethem has a deep knowledge of 20th century culture, history, music, and literature, and that comes through loud and clear in the book which is jam-packed with one factoid and cultural reference after another. It's a bit exhausting! At times I wished he would just tone it down a bit.

One thing about this challenging book: if you finish it, which I did because of my commitment to my book club, it certainly gives you a lot to talk about!

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