A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers—an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals
At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s superb new novel stand two extraordinary women: Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist who savages neighbors, family, and political comrades with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her precocious and willful daughter, Miriam, equally passionate in her activism, flees Rose’s influence to embrace the dawning counterculture of Greenwich Village.
These women cast spells over the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her cousin, the feckless chess hustler Lenny Angrush; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinging husband, Tommy Gogan; their bewildered son, Sergius. Flawed and idealistic, Lethem’s characters struggle to inhabit the utopian dream in an America where radicalism is viewed with bemusement, hostility, or indifference.
As the decades pass—from the parlor communism of the ’30s, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, ragged ’70s communes, the romanticization of the Sandinistas, up to the Occupy movement of the moment—we come to understand through Lethem’s extraordinarily vivid storytelling that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.
Lethem’s characters may pursue their fates within History with a capital H, but his novel is—at its mesmerizing, beating heart—about love.
While collective memory might offer some hazy grasp of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklists, all but forgotten is the real American Communist Party and its Depression-era heyday. In this epic and complex new novel, Lethem considers what happened to the ACP, as well as some other questions, about maternal isolation and filial resentment. The book begins with the case of Rose Zimmer, in Queens, New York, who was officially ousted from the party in 1955 for sleeping with a black cop. Rose's daughter, Miriam, is a teenager at the time, and she soon discovers the pull of Greenwich Village bohemians. Rose's and Miriam's stories are interwoven, as the narrative moves back and forth in time, uncovering Rose's doomed relationships, as well as Miriam's fiery determination to escape her mother's rage. Miriam's son, Sergius, also comes into the story as a child and an adult, juxtaposing three generations along with Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose's black cop boyfriend, an unexpected member of the family by proxy and the most interesting character of the book by far. Cicero formed an unexpected relationship with the bitter, Jewish woman as a kid, and, in turn, became a beneficiary of her intellect. All together, the cast makes for a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem's writing, as always, packs a witty punch. The epoch each character inhabits is artfully etched and the book is as illuminating of 20th-century American history as it is of the human burden of overcoming alienation.
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On the one hand this novel is an exploration of leftist NYC from the inside out. This satirical, stream-of-consciousness, novel depicts the complicated interiority of communist-tinged intellectuals of the last fifty years. On the other hand, it is a quirky, but poignant history of Rose Zimmer, the Red Queen of Sunnyside Queens. Rose is the unwitting progenitor of a dozen characters whose lives intersect at odd points and veer off into interesting directions and their individual sagas form a satisfying novel that chronicles with raucous irreverence a real, postmodern dilemma: how does one find meaning in the spiritual wreckage of a heartless capitalist economy?