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Jonathan Lethem: “My work is taken so seriously, maybe excessively seriously”

Jonathan Lethem is about to release his most ambitious book yet -- no small statement.

The author of much-hailed novels, including "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude," returns with "Dissident Gardens," a sprawling, time-hopping novel that takes on the history of intellectual protest, and of New York, in the 20th century. Extrapolating outward from a loosely defined family, Lethem's book finds room for New York baseball, quiz shows, race relations, Archie Bunker, homosexuality, academia and a misguided jungle adventure.

Narrowly defined, though, "Dissident Gardens" is the story of a mother and her descendants -- Rose Zimmer, an elderly communist; Miriam, her daughter and a societal dropout; Sergius, her grandson living in or near the present day; Cicero, the gay son of Rose's black lover, who retreats into literary theory as a means of abstaining from answering the identity questions that have plagued him through his life.

Lethem, perhaps the closest thing New York has to a bard, lives in California now; he spoke with Salon by phone about the perils of writing an "ambitious" novel, the degree to which protest culture is part of our everyday lives now, and whether he's annoyed to be compared with that other Jonathan.

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