Jonathan Lethem makes no secret of his influences. His first published novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, riffed on the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. He’s written an academic novel in the style of Don Delillo (As She Climbed Across the Table), and crossbred E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with John Ford’s The Searchers, transporting the Western to an alien world in Girl in Landscape. He’s even written about “the ecstasy of influence,” reminding us that no creative act arrives ex nihilo — it’s all, like his own work, a product of influences and appropriations, conscious and not.

His latest novel, Dissident Gardens, follows three generations of utopian seekers whose American dreams are thwarted by reality. They’re activists to varying degrees and, as Lethem says, fundamentally uncomfortable in everyday life. Their stories trace a particular vein running through the country’s history, from the Communist cells of the 1930s to the Occupy movement of today.

By telephone from his home in California, Lethem discussed the porous borders between science fiction and “the mainstream,” how contemporary fiction acknowledges (or doesn’t) technology and capitalism, and wanting to write about his grandmother’s sex life.