Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Dissident Gardens’: In Praise of Authors Who Aren’t Afraid to Geek Out

When I tell people that Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, is the author’s most accessible work, I tend to walk away from the conversation thinking I did the person I was talking to, and the author, a disservice. The book isn’t less engaging or a step down from his previous works; what I mean is that Dissident Gardens is Lethem’s easiest novel to follow, and far less genre- and culture reference-dependent than past novels like Chronic City (science fiction) and Motherless Brooklyn (postmodern detective novel).

I liked his latest book, but I can’t say I didn’t miss Lethem’s fanboy side. Dissident Gardens is humorous and enjoyable, and I can’t pass up a good Jewish family story filled with a few generations’ worth of revolutionary thinking. But something I’ve always appreciated about Lethem and his writing is that he doesn’t mind letting his influences — from Bellow to Ballard — show in his work, and he has a tendency to really geek out over those literary influences, along with music, movies, and just about anything else that is interesting to him. It adds another dimension to my own reading of his work, and makes me think that he’s the type of author best suited to a person — like myself — who has plenty of idiosyncratic interests of their own.

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From reading his work, I know Lethem loves the outer boroughs of New York City, likes Bob Dylan, and has entire books’ worth of interesting thoughts on the Talking Heads and underrated 1980s films. If Lethem ever called upon me to do it, I could probably create a thorough and compelling OkCupid or JDate profile for him (but I’m going to go ahead and guess he doesn’t want that).

Lethem’s openness about what he likes doesn’t just seed his work with references for culture geeks to pick up on; his, and other allusive authors’, frequent shout outs to their idols also provide readers with free recommendations. I’ve enjoyed all of Zadie Smith’s books, so her appreciation for James Baldwin made me read more of his work; Jeffrey Eugenides’ claim that The Marriage Plot was influenced by Henry James made me curious to pick up a book that I probably would have otherwise not read; Deborah Eisenberg, who I consider one of the finest short story writers that the English language has to offer, had me clamoring to read Katherine Mansfield simply by mentioning her in a “Art of Fiction” interview.

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Katherine Mansfield

But Lethem is, without a doubt, the most enthusiastic writer I can think of when it comes to talking about the books and other things that make him tick, from his essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence to his appearance on this episode of Bookworm. When a writer — and especially the more widely known literary authors I’ve mentioned — geeks out with fans about their mutual passions, it creates a personal bond between writer and reader. I won’t spend too long lamenting the absence of this kind of thing in Lethem’s most recent novel, because it’s so much a part of his identity that I’m sure we’ll see more of it from him after Dissident Gardens, which satisfies the literary reader but leaves the fanboy out in the cold.