In Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem explores the peculiar and enthralling legacy of Rose Angrush, Communist grump of Sunnyside, Queens.
The book opens with Rose. Was she also the first character to come to you?
Well, I thought a lot about Rose, and [her daughter] Miriam, before I began writing, and before I had any clear idea about any of the others. But I’m not much impressed, anymore, by what exists of a book before I begin writing it. I didn’t really know anything about anyone until they walked on, began behaving, forming themselves in language. As it then happened, I wrote Cicero before the others, and his first appearance—in the ocean—was originally the opening chapter. The book was something like his mind: a fist of rage slowly loosening. In retrospect, I had to hate Rose before I could love her, which seems to be a condition that describes a lot of things about this project—Rose, for instance, has to hate America before she loves it.
The characters in this book all seem pretty emblematic of the time periods in which they exist [the ’30s through the 2010s] How much of a character is idiosyncratic to that individual personality and how much reflects the wider context?
I’d hardly want to choose. As I’d only managed once before, in The Fortress of Solitude, I sought to have it both ways—to risk saying so much about context that the reader would feel the pressure of social and historical circumstance like a pressure of fathoms of ocean over the heads of the characters—and yet to discover in each of them such particularity, such a degree of presence—idiosyncrasy, to use your word—that they’d live beyond context. The Dickens trick, let’s call it. I hope it worked.
We get to know three generations within this novel, and their stories are interwoven. How did you arrive at this structure?
The truth is that for me this is how the material arrived—the structure announcing itself as a series of deepening posthumous investigations into this dysfunctional unit of imaginary humans. Well, posthumous except for Sergius and Cicero, that is. The structure appears to be taking memory’s faltering and indirect method of investigation as its formal license. But that’s a retrospective description of something I couldn’t have named as I worked.
What research did you do for this book?
Endless, and endlessly eccentric, into New York police history, baseball history, and obviously certain radical and dissident episodes, including some that go completely unmentioned in the book, like Waco. The more I say I did, the more I’ll invite people saying there’s too much of it on the page, but I left mountains of it out, and some of the most tendentious specifics would turn out, if you fact-checked the thing, to be my total inventions. What I did compulsively was read and reread certain texts that gave me the false sense-memories of the ’50s and early ’60s (and, to a lesser extent, the ’30s and ’40s). Lots of novels, many of them minor or forgotten, written in those periods and with then-contemporary settings. Also a certain amount of actual propaganda—I don’t recommend it.