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Dissident Gardens

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In 1947, when the American Communist Party sends Rose's German-Jewish husband back to East Germany, she is "cast into her life's purgatory: Real's Radish and Pickle [where she works as a bookkeeper], single-motherhood, and Queens without Manhattan, exile to that suburb of the enraged."

Eight years later, the Party expels her for "excess zeal in the cause of Negro equality" – that is, her affair with a married black policeman – an expulsion which ironically spares her from the HUAC. Rose leaves a lasting imprint on this man's son, whose life story is one of the more interesting strands of Lethem's remarkably intricate narrative. Cicero Lookins becomes a Princeton-educated professor at a college in Maine where he's their "miraculous triple token, gay, black, and overweight." Like his onetime mentor Rose, Cicero is "some kind of ambulatory grievance," an obese, dreadlocked Theorist prone to convoluted rants who is "impossible to embarrass. Instead he embarrassed others."

In 2011, Lethem published a book of essays, "The Ecstasy of Influence," in part a vigorous defense of cultural copping and plagiarism. "Dissident Gardens" is more about the agony of influence: All of its characters repudiate their parents and mentors even as they are forced to acknowledge the profundity of their heritage.

Chief among the rejectors is Rose's only child, Miriam, who flees home by sixteen, drawn to a bohemian commune in Greenwich Village and a life of activist protest. She marries an Ulster Protestant, redheaded musician Tommy Gogan, whose music under her influence takes a more political turn.

"Precisely to the same degree she'd been mothered in disappointment, in embittered moderation, in the stifling of unreasonable expectations, in second-generation cynicism towards collapsed gleaming visions of the future, the morose detachment of the suburbs, Miriam was in fact a Bolshevik of the five senses.  Her whole body demanded revolution and gleaming cities in which revolution could be played out, her whole character screamed to see high towers raised up and destroyed," Lethem writes in a typical passage.

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