ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Rose Zimmer met her husband at a packed meeting hall near Gramercy Park. They didn't know it at the time, but both had been sent by their respective Communist cells to infiltrate the meeting. So begins a truly radical new multigenerational novel from Jonathan Lethem. The book is called "Dissident Gardens" and here's author Mohsin Hamid with a review.
MOHSIN HAMID, BYLINE: "Dissident Gardens" is a big novel. And in a country with a long and vocal history of support for big novels, it fits. The book feels profoundly American. Chronologically speaking, Lethem begins in the 1930s with meetings of the American Communist Party. He passes through McCarthyism, the hippie Age of Aquarius and the AIDS epidemic.
He also goes abroad, to places like East Germany and war-torn Nicaragua. It's a lot of ground to cover, but Lethem is a skilled writer and it works. Holding the story together are two powerful women. Rose is a Communist firebrand. Her daughter, Miriam, is an activist. And circling around them are the men, Albert, Rose's husband, an aristocratic German Jew; Cicero, the black gay son of her lover; Lenny, the family's lustful cousin.
What it all adds up to turns out to be a very personal history of the American left. Optimistic Communists and hippies appear in the moments when they feel most triumphant. And from there, Lethem follows them to their doom. After all, America has been a leftist graveyard.
But even though this book is coming out in an era of bank bailouts and half-hearted health care reform, doom might be too final a word. Something always survives each dissident movement, to be taken up anew, in fresh forms. At the end of Rose's life, the old communist lives in a nursing home, suffering from dementia.
Cicero comes to see her. The gaze with which she'd cut down American Brownshirts, Lethem writes, or landlord-corrupted police captains attempting to execute eviction notices, she now levied against Cicero's slight oversell of the rice pudding. Maybe this is how all dissidents end - fragile, the transformations they hope for out of reach, the collective millions they sought to change crushing their individual smallness.
But not entirely crushing. Cicero offers a consolation. You did okay, though, Rose. You existed a while. It's in the record books. And it's in this moving novel, as well.
SIEGEL: The book is "Dissident Gardens" by Jonathan Lethem. Our reviewer is Mohsin Hamid. His latest book is called "How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia."