“You’re not going to be graded on the language, I don’t care if you comment in emoticons or Harry Potter rebus, Mugglespeak or whatever, just offer some evidence of engagement,” says Cicero Lookins, the fictional “triple token” (“gay, black, and overweight”) of rural Maine’s Baginstock College, a Comp Lit professor doling out guidelines as to how his students ought to write in his seminar, “Disgust and Proximity.” “Put your fingerprints on the thing,” he commands them, demanding substance over style, politics over poetry—engagement.
In his latest novel, Jonathan Lethem—like Cicero—seems less interested in form than in content. Dissident Gardens (Doubleday, 384 pages, $27.95) spans decades, tracks a handful of protagonists, and stands as Mr. Lethem’s most substantive attempt at social realism. Gone here are the Philip K. Dickian fantastical elements and formal experimentations of his earlier novels’ softcore sci-fi. For his debut as a more straightforward realist, Mr. Lethem—still one of our “young writers,” having turned 49 in February—has chosen an appropriately mature theme: ideas, or more accurately, ideology itself. Read More