The New York borough of Queens is home to one of the 20th century’s more distinctive ruins, the site of the 1939–40 and 1964–5 World’s Fairs at Flushing Meadow. Not much of either event remains – some wide, optimistic boulevards, a skeletal globe (the ‘Unisphere’), a science pavilion, now a museum. A geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller is today the aviary of the Queens Zoo. The site has had a fairly rich cultural afterlife on film, its impeccable retro-futurism serving as a perfect backdrop to alien incursions and jostling superheroes. But in truth it is more eloquent in its present state, patched, peeled and CGI-free: this was tomorrow, it says, and look where it got us.
The failed utopias of the 20th century form a kind of ostinato in Dissident Gardens, but they don’t quite constitute its subject. Jonathan Lethem is more concerned with the particular than the general, specifically the lives and loves of two families, the anguished Angrushes and the lovelorn Lookinses, whose members