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Why all the marsupials?

An Interview with Jonathan Lethem
Conducted by James Peacock

American Studies Today Online

Jonathan Allen Lethem is a novelist whose work is a genre-bending mixture of detective and science fiction. In 2005 he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius grant.” This interview with James Peacock took place on 25 May 2009 in Brooklyn.

James Peacock is Lecturer in English and American Literatures, Keele University

Posted 06-Mar-2014

Personal Note
The Interview
Works Cited
Further Reading




Jonathan LethemOn 20 September 2005 Jonathan Allen Lethem received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius grant.” Accolades do not come much higher for a writer, yet for many years his career had appeared to be taking a different course. Born on 19 February 1964, Lethem followed his father, Richard Brown Lethem, in devoting his creative energies to visual art from an early age. He attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, producing paintings he now dismisses as “glib, show-offy, usually cartoonish” (Post Road). At Bennington College, Vermont, in 1982, Lethem realised not only that his radical, bohemian upbringing in multicultural Brooklyn made it difficult to relate to the privileged white kids all around him, but also that he really wanted to be a writer rather than an artist. Dropping out of college, he headed west, eventually settling in Berkeley, California, where he lived for twelve years, working in bookshops and writing whenever he could.

The influence of visual art can be felt throughout his writing, however; in the extraordinary visual palette he employs in the descriptions of extraterrestrials and alien environments in Girl in Landscape (1998); in the formative connections between graffiti art and adolescent identity in The Fortress of Solitude (2003); and in the eclecticism, the “secret collages” at the heart of all his fictions. Indeed, he claims that his writing “is closer to painting, or making a film, or making a song, in the sense that appropriations, echoes, references are native to the act and can’t be controlled the way a journalist would control a colleague or a teacher would control a student handing in a paper” (Bomb). It is unsurprising, then, that one of the notable techniques of Lethem’s work is ekphrasis, the description of other forms of art—graffiti and fine art in Fortress of Solitude, conceptual art and live music in You Don’t Love Me Yet (2007).

Lethem’s eclecticism is matched by the sheer volume of his output. It is hard to disagree with Betty Sussler’s opening remarks to her Bomb interview in October 2008: “To say that Jonathan is a prolific writer would be an understatement.” Since publishing his first short story in 1989, he has published eight novels, as well as three short story collections, a novella, a graphic novel and numerous critical essays and articles on subjects as diverse as literary plagiarism, his love of The Clash and his obsession with John Ford’s 1956 western The Searchers. He also edited the collection Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002, and his love of popular music is evident throughout his fiction, particularly in Motherless Brooklyn (1999), The Fortress of Solitude and most explicitly in his affectionate satire on the LA music and cultural scene You Don’t Love Me Yet. His novels, in particular, have attracted widespread acclaim and garnered a number of awards. Motherless Brooklyn received the National Book Critics Award for Fiction and the Macallan Gold Dagger for crime fiction, as well as being named Esquire’s book of the year. The Fortress of Solitude became a New York Times Best Seller.

When he was fourteen, Lethem’s mother Judith died from a brain tumour. The young Lethem was profoundly affected by her death, regarding it as “a confirmation” of the world’s propensity for fragmentation and disaster (Bomb). In his autobiographical essay “The Beards,” he talks explicitly about the influence his mother’s passing had on his work: “Each of my novels, antic as they may sometimes be, is fuelled by loss. I find myself speaking about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world” (149). For all their playfulness, Lethem’s novels and short stories deal with serious and universal themes—loss, memory, the need to connect with those around you, to move from private grieving to a sense of community.

Personal Note

Jonathan Lethem has spoken of his “disordered reactivity to the world,” an idiomatic “neurological style” not dissimilar to the Tourette’s Syndrome which afflicts Lionel Essrog, unlikely hero of Motherless Brooklyn (Bomb). Lethem’s novels and short stories contain—that is, include and restrain—his ticcish tendencies but do so, ironically, not through recourse to a compensatory ordered realism, but through collisions of the real and the fantastical, eye-popping genre clashes, and unlikely linguistic and literary connections stretched almost to breaking point.

My preoccupation with Lethem’s work, as both a research topic and as pure enjoyment, was conceived through “disordered reactivity.” It stemmed from a number of random echoes, from phrases, characters and moods in his writing that nagged at me and eventually begged to assume the status of puns on my own life. To offer a few examples: Lethem’s debut novel Gun, With Occasional Music (1994) and You Don’t Love Me Yet both feature kangaroos (only one of whom talks and wields a gun). As an EFL teacher in Prague back in the nineties, I supported a local soccer team which, it turned out, had a kangaroo for a mascot. This discovery was made soon after my friend, who was, like me, far from fluent in Czech, had been to the supermarket and bought what he thought was beef but turned out to be kangaroo meat. In the end it felt inevitable that the band we formed together was called Špatný Klokan, or Bad Kangaroo.

The second echo affected me in quite a different way. I first read Girl in Landscape in 2003, the year my mother died from cancer. Here was a sci-fi coming-of-age western, set on a remote planet and featuring aliens called Archbuilders with frond-like hair and a penchant for random, curiously poetic names such as “Hiding Kneel.” Yet as I read the novel, I couldn’t help but conclude that the very strangest thing, the most out-there novum of all, was the death of the female protagonist’s mother. Lethem’s characteristic bringing together of genres in this case managed perfectly to capture the way in which the death of a loved one renders the entire world, and any other worlds that might exist, utterly strange, utterly fragmented, and forever incomplete. This novel moved me profoundly, and it took this emotional jolt for me to begin to understand intellectually what Lethem was trying to do.

Visiting Lethem’s website some time later and clicking on the link to his “floating workshop or lab for making music” called I’m not Jim (<http://www.imnotjim.com/index.html>), I experienced yet another echo. The simple statement “I’m not Jim” functioned as a more than adequate descriptor of that peculiar, but not entirely unpleasant, state of otherness or estrangement I sometimes felt as I reflected on the increasingly ordered and comfortable life I was leading as a university teacher, husband and father. The fact that it was the name of a band (sort of) was absolutely appropriate. Like many of Lethem’s characters, I suspect, I sometimes had the feeling that I was in a tribute band, banging out cover versions of episodes of my own life for which the original had long been lost. Perhaps this feeling is simply what we refer to as “memory.”

Arguably the greatest gifts a novelist has, over and above linguistic brilliance and a facility with narrative, are empathy, the imagination of otherness, and the ability to make the idiosyncratic seem somehow universal. Lest my observations seem somewhat narcissistic, too bound up in, to quote one of Philip Roth characters, “Everything that says ‘me’” (Zuckerman Unbound 92), let me say in my defence that I am responding to Lethem’s writing in the way (I hope) everybody does when reading a work of literature—recognising that I am entering another world, but one which, though the novelist’s empathetic attention to the structure of that world, inevitably relates to my own in surprising ways.

The interview took place on 25 May 2009 at his writing studio in Brooklyn, and I would like sincerely to thank Jonathan Lethem for his time, patience and generosity, and for the walking tour of the streets that inspired Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. I’d also like to thank Doubleday for letting me have an advance copy of Chronic City, Lethem’s eighth novel, in preparation for this interview.

The Interview

Q. So, as someone who was once in a band called Bad Kangaroo, I’d like to start with a question close to my heart: why all the marsupials?

A. Well, I mean it’s two, really.

Q. There’s a mention of one in Chronic City, I think, briefly—

A. Chronic CityYes, by then I was probably having fun with the idea because I’d already begun to be asked “why so many kangaroos?” so I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to provoke my kangaroo constituency.” I mean, I can only explain it kind of laboriously. I hit on the kangaroo as my version of Elisha Cook Junior in Gun, With Occasional Music and it was a very happy discovery that just felt funny and right and the name Joey sounded hardboiled, but it wasn’t any deeper gesture than that. It was a book full of talking animals so one of them was a kangaroo. And yet he became kind of the signature—you know, he got put on the jacket of the first edition and I guess he does run away with a few scenes in the book. But I also made a really ludicrous mistake, which is, I gave this male boy kangaroo a pouch. So I felt I always kind of owed one to the marsupials; I had to make it right between myself and the species. But no, honestly I wasn’t thinking “When can I next use a kangaroo?”

But the story how the kangaroo got in to You Don’t Love Me Yet is interesting enough to tell. That is, it goes to probably some of the things that you’ll be asking me about, but having written The Fortress of Solitude and the cycle of essays that are in The Disappointment Artist, I’d been doing work, in a way, in this kind of memory vein. It was relatively heavy work for a while, five or six years of writing that was predominantly indebted to Brooklyn and childhood and family and old friends and cultural references I’d wanted to be super-scrupulous with—you know, soul music or comic books or John Cassavetes, whichever it was—things I felt enormous responsibility toward. Which isn’t to say that the writing was dutiful or that the experience was less than exhilarating. That was an incredible experience, locating that vein or those associated veins of material. But at the end when I was finally conceiving what kind of novel I wanted to write next—and it was the longest break I’d ever had between novels because of the nature of The Fortress of Solitude—it struck me that I’d become a very responsible novelist. And so I conceived You Don’t Love Me Yet as a cavalier gesture, a way to write a book that was responsible to no memory, that honoured no part of my real life, that was overtly ludicrous and giddy and, if it had any value, it would be the values of brio and velocity and freshness, but it was never going to be something where you could say, “Well, this is an important book to read because it will tell you what gentrification was really about or why it’s so hard to be black,” or whatever.

One of the many ways in which I imposed that irresponsibility on the book was to set it in a city that I didn’t know well. A more natural choice would have been to make it a Bay Area book, because I did live in northern California in my twenties and early thirties, and that’s when I was sort of in a band and that’s where very, very approximately the energies of that book are drawn. But I thought, “If I do that, then I’m doing The Fortress of San Francisco. What I want to do is something where I’ve kicked loose of this kind of accountability or promise to be reporting or excavating anything. So I have to set it in a city that I don’t know and fake it, bluff it.” And it was a chance to let serendipity and a sense of being answerable to no one come back into play.

And so I went to LA for a month to just pick up the kinds of traces I needed to fake it—which was not a matter of covering my ass but a matter of fun. I thought, “I’ve got people I want to see here, and I always do like LA when I’m there for two weeks or a month (I never like it longer than that). I’ll go and have one of those times and I’ll pick up just the scent of the place—some street names, a café or two, or a bar or two to put these characters in and that will give me my tiny licence.”

So I looked up this guy who’d been recommended to me as the mayor of Silverlake. He’d been advertised to me as “the guy who knows where all the real Silverlake bands hang out, and where Silverlake really happens; he’s invited to every party and he’ll usher you into Silverlake.” And I wrangled this guy and got him to pick me up in his car one morning for his insider tour, ostensibly, but he properly wasn’t willing to be cast as the mayor of Silverlake, which is how I guess he’d earned the title—he was too cool to be pinned down. So he kind of hijacked me that day and took me to the LA zoo instead, which I had no idea really existed or was interesting, and we spent a long, hot afternoon walking and talking, looking at animals and having the most absurd conversation, him avoiding giving me any useful information about Silverlake, and we spent a lot of time just looking at these animals, and it was very funny. The kangaroos were abject and strange in their pit, and I had another friend along who took a couple of digital photographs of the kangaroos and sent them to me, so suddenly they were on my computer. And this memory of the kangaroos and the experience of walking through the zoo colonised the book, because I’d conceived a book that was, in a way, so loosely jointed that anything could take it over. So suddenly the zoo became very important, and since it was a book about day jobs—I mean, the only tiny little serious observation I had to impart in that book was, you know, in the long, sporadic history of bad rock and roll novels (and everyone agrees rock and roll novels are all bad, and I think I managed help confirm this impression; many people feel clearly it’s my worst book, which in a way it was almost conceived to be), people are always writing about bands that are famous, fake famous, and to me the worst thing about terrible rock and roll novels is that you never believe the songs could be good, and you never believe the lyrics, you never believe the career.

Q. You also never believe the names—

A. You never believe the names.

Q. Naming of bands is incredibly difficult, and that’s why I think Subtle Distinctions is so good.

A. Thank you.

Q. No, that one really works.

A. Thank you. But I also thought, “What’s wrong with the rock and roll novel, if I can diagnose it, is that most people I know have been in a rock and roll band but they weren’t in a famous one. They were in one that rehearsed, barely gigged, fell apart. It’s a part of life that the failing aspect of it is never written about. So I’m going to write about having to have a day job,” and so I did have to have these characters all have something else to do. So the zoo had an easy way in. I turned Matthew from something else. I don’t remember what his something else is, but it couldn’t have been as good as his job at the zoo. And so, you know, the book was porous, and this poured in, and so then suddenly the joke of doing another kangaroo book was before me. But there’s no master plan. That’s much more of an answer than you expected!

Q. No, that’s fine! But I’m just going to return to Joey for a while, and the scene where we’re told that he doesn’t like being reminded of his origins. I think what’s particularly interesting about him is his status as a prematurely evolved animal or an artificially evolved animal. Evolution, along with the drug Forgettol, seems to be just another form of amnesia in that book, Gun, With Occasional Music, and I wondered what you felt about evolution—it seems to be something that doesn’t happen naturally in your novels or with very positive outcomes.

A.Gun with occasional musicYes. Well, probably that’s a bit of the dystopian or paranoid view of science that I inherited from J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. But also, you know, that book is a book about California, and the amnesia has partly to do with the way California heightens and exaggerates and exemplifies an American propensity to pastlessness, to on-the-spot invention that looks towards the future and tries to erase points of origin, and is punished for that mistake. And I think it’s an American mistake. The reason that the greatest hardboiled novels are all set in California is because the theme is so beautifully congruent. The detectives are always forced, even if it’s uncomfortable for them or unpleasant to be in this role, they’re forced to reverse erased histories, to recall what’s been “amnesiaced.”

Q. To ask questions.

A. Yes. And California is a place that resists that by its fundamental conception. So evolution becomes, I guess, congruent with this problem of the American experiment. Can we leave Europe? Can we leave the past? Can we leave points of origin behind and self-invent?

Q. What strikes me about that first novel as well is the way that genre itself seems to evolve, despite the best efforts of the detective. It’s almost like Conrad Metcalf is trying to keep that a detective novel, and it keeps becoming a sci-fi novel.

A. That’s interesting. I’ve never heard it described that way but I like that, right. Well, again it points up the way in which—and this is only something I inherited, it was right there to be had, I didn’t need to create it myself—the Chandleresque detective is already a man out of time. He’s a time traveller before someone like me comes along and makes him literally so. His ethos, his ethics, in a way his courtliness —because he’s very rude but he’s also very courtly—

Q. Especially in something like The Long Good-bye.

A. —is evidence of him being a man out of time in a dystopian present.

Q. So this question of genre is obviously an important one, and I’m almost nervous in bringing up the topic because you always get asked about it, but also I don’t want to be accused of having “paradigm eyes.” But it strikes me that some of the characters are often very conscious of the fact that they’re in these kinds of genre collisions or mutations. I mean, the obvious example is “Light and the Sufferer,” when the character says, “‘Of course it’s weird [. . .] That’s why we love it, right Paul? It’s from another dimension, it’s  f***ing weird, it’s science fiction.’” But you could also argue, I think, that Metcalf seems aware that he’s in a kind of genre fiction, and even maybe to a lesser extent Pella Marsh, though I think it’s a lot more subtle there. Is that something intentional, that the characters have a kind of reflexive awareness of what’s happening with the genre?

A. Well, I mean, “intentional”—

Q. —is a difficult word—

A. —is a difficult word because it sounds that I’ve planned a certain motif across the course of the wanderings of decades of story writing. Go back to something like “Light and the Sufferer”—is that a quarter of a century old for me now? I mean, it’s old, it’s old! But I’ve certainly observed the same thing you have, which isn’t the same thing as crediting it as intentional. I write meta-generically, and the moment someone introduced that word I felt I could embrace it. For me it’s analogous to the layers of cultural self-consciousness that I write about, for instance, in a character like Dylan Ebdus, who listens to the music he listens to with paradigms of class and race and social positioning or social implications around the music, helplessly. And he still has a very deep and, I would even say, organic relationship to music as I do to storytelling or to genre, but he’s in a way equally organically self-conscious. And I’m that. I mean, I think that for whatever reason the way I was introduced to the very appealing examples of genre in narrative when I was introduced to them—perhaps because it was simultaneous with so many other introductions; I was all at once reading Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Graham Greene and Kafka—it declared itself to me as a matter to be looked at as well as relished.

And then very shortly after that I added another layer. I found, lucky for me, Philip K. Dick almost next and then the rest of my curiosity about science fiction went back from this, and I satisfied myself about what a self-conscious writer like Dick, a self-satirising writer like Philip K. Dick was satirising, only retroactively. And it’s true in a way Chandler did the same thing for me. I think Chandler is writing about the problem of the detective novel, certainly in his last few novels, as much as he’s committed to writing a good one.

And maybe this has to do with my parents’ relationship to cultural practice in general, with their bohemianism, which put a lot of things in embracing quote marks. You know, “we like stuff without taking it straight.” My mother relished old black and white movies, but she did that the way a pothead who also likes The Harder They Come and Yellow Submarine likes a Humphrey Bogart movie—not entirely straight. My father—well, he was a mid-century American, fine arts painter. What was the turn that defined his generation? It was the turn from Abstract Expressionism, which was like a pure high Modernism, to the Pop artists, reclaiming imagery but in an ironised sense. So I was introduced simultaneously to the notion that art was trying to purify itself and reach this exalted kind of Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, high Modernist, sublime mountain top, but that it was also somehow always going to collapse back, as Guston personally did, into bubblegum wrappers and comic books and Klansmen and googly eyes and funny marks on the page that reminded you of food and funny faces. So I was just born into this complexity.

Q. In Chronic City you have a hamburger joint that’s destroyed by a rogue tunnelling machine (that might be a tiger!) but that scene becomes really quite affecting, really tragic (for particular reasons, and I won’t spoil it for future readers of the novel). I think it ties in to what you’re talking about, this sincere passion coupled with the ability to step back and look at things meta-generically. When you have those moments of both absurdity and real emotional content, they seem to be moments at the narrative level that represent the same combination of knowingness and sincerity.

A. I agree, and I think that probably catches something. And it’s become such a fundamental practice that I don’t notice it by the time I’m writing a scene like that. But I would also—and this isn’t to step back from all our meta-generic, meta-critical thinking here—but to say I’m also doing, finally, the only thing a writer can do and not be bored after so much writing, which is try to find a way to describe something about life that they haven’t managed to describe before. And in that scene you’re describing, it’s a great example of something I’m often trying to describe and looking for better and better ways to, which is not a fact about literature or about postmodern culture but a fact about existence at its root, which is that absurd things can destroy us. I think that’s true of life, and tormenting because you’re forced to see the absurdity and experience the destruction.

Q. The other novel that for me was most affecting was Girl in LandscapeGirl in Landscape. It’s the moment when I realised I did actually enjoy your work. I’d read a couple of novels and I’d always felt, “Okay, that’s interesting” but I wasn’t quite sure that I was actually enjoying your work until I read Girl in Landscape. It’s the one where I first had that emotional connection, partly because I happened to read it the year my mother died, in 2003. So suddenly with the use of genre, I thought “Ah, okay; there’s a psychological reality here that’s being tapped into.” The critic Darko Suvin uses the term “novum” to describe the point of difference between our world and the alternative world of the sci-fi text. What struck me about Girl in Landscape is that you’ve got the Archbuilders, you’ve got the household deer and you’ve got many other likely candidates, but for me the most significant novum is the mother’s death. It seems to me the thing that’s most out-there, the thing that’s most difficult to comprehend.

A. Right. Well, I’ll speak very simply about that book. It was for me unmistakably a very, very definite step into something more emotionally direct. You know, I’m very proud of the three books that preceded it in different ways. Amnesia Moon is kind of an ugly duckling that carries so many of my teenage yearnings, and it’s the sort of book I first wanted to write. I sort of managed to do one, and then I realised “Oh, I’m going to be forced to grow or be different than that,” but it still carries this code of my earliest yearnings. And I think As She Climbed Across the Table, in a very indirect way, is also very emotional and people sometimes catch it. I feel there’s a kind of cleverness to that book and I feel that I pulled off a kind of magic act with the ending. You only get a gift like that once or twice, so I’m very fond of that book.

Q. And it’s also great reading that as an academic because the treatment of university disciplinarity is absolutely hilarious.

A. Well, it’s not a genre that people talk about so much as genre, but I feel that book is a very, very full and proud participant in—you know, Malcolm Bradbury, Don DeLillo’s done it a couple of times with End Zone and White Noise and he was certainly a big influence on that book, and John Barth’s first couple of novels, but I really wanted to do one of those and hit the marks the way that someone writing in any genre has to. You know, there has to be the Christmas party where everyone drinks too much, and there has to be the scene of someone being reprimanded by their superior in an office. I was really, earnestly wanting to see if I could make that little machine of the academic novel function for me.

But Girl in Landscape was a transforming book for me and one of the ironies is that The Fortress Solitudeof Solitude has been understandably taken as so deeply autobiographical, but my mother didn’t run away, my mother died of cancer. And I portray it almost with documentary specificity in the first part of Girl in Landscape. I would then conceal that disclosure within something that would strike people as being both a western and set on another planet. It’s almost like hiding in plain sight. No one’s ever going to know how autobiographical I am because all they’re going to do is think about how absurdly removed from the everyday this book is. But it was also a way of calling my own bluff; I wanted to write a teenage girl’s coming-of-age story and make it as emotionally stark and dangerous as the best books I saw in that genre. Shirley Jackson’s written a couple of them and you’ve probably seen me mention this list—The Member of the Wedding and in a way also Charles Portis’s True Grit. So it was a way of raising the stakes. If I put my own mother’s death in the first part of the book, I would have to commit to an emotional level that would transmit throughout the rest of the book. I’d have to sustain it to be worthy of giving the book—burdening the book, you might say—with that event.

So I was never the same writer again after that, I think. Of course, the irony is in a funny way that book was also my first flop. The people who really just wanted to see me play forever, as confusing as the changes between the first three books might have been, they could still say, “Well, okay, he’s always going to be this cool, funny, flip, ironic, playful writer,” and the emotion in Girl in Landscape was uncomfortable for a certain constituency. I also think that on the whole people, even literary readers who have made some accommodation to the idea that there’s some things that science fiction writers do that might be okay, another planet is the line they won’t cross, and so no one wants to read a book set on another planet. And in fact, I don’t want to read a book set on another planet—I never liked to do that.

Q. But it’s bizarre when it’s so obvious that the other planet is a representation of how everything becomes utterly defamiliarised when somebody dies. That seems obvious.

A. But try explaining that on the dust flap of the book! I think if you looked at, for instance, my publishers’ long-time cumulative sales reports, it would be that I was going very quietly, pleasantly up from miniscule cult writer to slightly less miniscule cult writer, and then I took a funny little dive again with Girl in Landscape. Of course, all to be made okay by the success of Motherless Brooklyn. But it still stands, I think, as a sort of secret book on my shelf for most readers.

Motherless Brooklyn
Q. Well, I’ll make that a mission. The Planet of the Archbuilders is covered in ruins, fragments of the past. In another interview you said that chunks of memory also lie around in Brooklyn. So I suppose the obvious question is—to what extent is the Planet of the Archbuilders a sort of transposed Brooklyn?

A. Well, that’s good, that’s right and it’s also something else, something much more immediate. I’d simultaneously fallen in love with John Ford westerns, and the way he uses the surrealist landscape of the desert of Arizona and Monument Valley—it’s like there’s a Franz Kline painting going on behind his cowboys. When John Wayne is raging, there’s also this shape that’s raging, or waiting, or contradicting him, or agreeing with him. And this intensity has to do with my interest in abstract painting. It has to do with my discovery of the real American West as a city kid, going out there and discovering the size of the planet. I mean, it can’t be explained unless you’ve gone through that. I don’t know if you’ve ever travelled into the Australian outback or the American West—the scale is different, human life feels different when put against that immensity and that abstraction. And I’d gone from being a city kid—there’s a Phil Ochs song, “I’m just a city boy, I never climbed a tree, my canyons were skyscrapers.” I grew up in a very geometrically extraordinary space, and psychologically extraordinary for its geometry, but all of it of human making. So this, in a way, conflation that I put together in the Planet of the Archbuilders—it had been built, it was a city, but it was now a Monument Valley. It was so ancient and it was so fallen that it had become a kind of mute geometry around the characters. I guess I was trying to smash together Brooklyn and what had overwhelmed me when I travelled in the American western states, and attain the poetry. Of course, I didn’t have the visual tools that John Ford did. I couldn’t point a camera at these shapes so I had to keep describing them over and over again. I don’t know if it gets anywhere close to what he can do effortlessly, but I needed somehow to import some of that into the story.

Q. Elsewhere you’ve said that Brooklyn is your Tourette’s, and I wonder if you could say a bit more about that because I really like that idea.

A. This is a dangerous question for me to answer because it calls forth one of my hoariest set-pieces. I mean, when I speak in front of a crowd, I’m always asked, “How did you arrive at writing about Tourette’s Syndrome? If you don’t have it yourself, why did you choose it, or why did you think it was yours to write about? How did that happen?” And I have a sort of rebus that I present —which I guess I believe in but I’ve heard myself say it so many times I’m suspicious of it—which is that I grew up in this place (and we’re right in the middle of it now) where personalities, conversations, street talk are very energetic, ironic, brittle, sometimes play at hostility, and sense of humour can be quite full of scorn, and flirt with aggression. And then I lived for ten years in northern California, where there’s a very, very different public ethos of speech and behaviour. By New York standards I’m not particularly loud or aggressive. I wouldn’t impress anyone here. But there I was constantly cast in this role of the guy who was too loud, too sarcastic, because people are really gentle and soft-spoken, mellow with each other and very easily disconcerted or affronted if you kind of get wound up. I really would play out again and again this situation where someone would say something that would stimulate me, I’d think, “Oh, I can take that and run with it,” and I’d be just turning on with some humorous riff or some big point or some reaction to something they’d said or proposed that wasn’t a refutation or a disagreement—

Q. —more like an invitation for further discussion.

A. Yes. I’d differ in part. I wanted to say, “well, yes and” or “but come on, what about this?” and just as I thought things were getting good, they thought things were getting very bad, and they would say, “Is something wrong? Did you have a bad day?” Or just physically, I’d sense them taking a step away from me, really making more space for themselves, and I realised that me in the mode of exhortation, me in the mode of provocation, me excited, is not playing very well. And I did learn to tone it down, but that meant I was building a set of controls onto my behaviour and speech.

So that’s how I related Brooklyn to Tourette’s: Brooklyn was my Tourette’s while I was in California because I left there when I was too young to really separate my sense of self from where I’d come from. I didn’t get it, I hadn’t lived anywhere else. And when I came back I realised, “Oh, I get to be loud and sarcastic here and people will be turned on in return and give me back more of the same.” And I thought, “You know, the street talk is part of me, and I can take this observation and make the kind of exaggeration of it that fiction thrives on. If I decide that Brooklyn is Tourette’s, it’s wrong, it’s a mistake, but fiction loves those mistakes.”

Q. I suspect you wouldn’t want to talk about your work in terms of regionalism and all that implies, but there does seem to be a kind of urban regional sensibility to some of the novels. In Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude you use that word “Manhattanized” slightly pejoratively in the sense that Brooklyn seems to stand for the embrace of the past or the past that constantly erupts through like Tourette’s—

A. Yes, yes—unwilling embrace of the juxtapositions, an unfinished quality. To “Manhattanize” something is to slick it over, and in Brooklyn it never quite works. It isn’t that they aren’t trying all the time, but the crud bleeds up through the veneer.

Q. Does that make—and I suppose this is related to Chronic City, which I’ll come to a bit later—does that make Brooklyn somehow more “real” than Manhattan?

A. Well, that’s a pitfall you’re inviting me into, isn’t it?

Q. It is. I’m sorry!

A. No, no, I’ll say no. It’s not more real but its unreality is more revealing and revealed. That’s what I would say. But I’m going to fail to answer this question if I don’t talk about it in terms of a sense of process, because just as when we were speaking of California—and we didn’t use the terms “real” or “unreal” but we talked about amnesia and memory, things coming up from underneath or being investigated that had been smoothed over or fogged over—it’s a question of process. And the thing about Brooklyn that seems to me most definitive is that it’s a negotiation, and a visible negotiation. Walking down the street is a negotiation; trying to make neighbourhoods out of these incoherent areas is a negotiation, and it’s undisguised. In Manhattan the claim is being asserted that the job is done, that the glorious result has been arrived at. Of course, it’s also juxtaposed and turbulent in its way, underneath, and in Chronic City I try to make that evident. But the power of the smoothing over is also very striking, and I guess in my mind correlates to American dreams of a simple, total concept of what it is to be alive or to be justified—

Q. —or achieving.

A. Yes, yes.

Q. The other side of this question is that a number of your novels seem to take this idea of regionalism too far. You explore the consequences when people take it to a really tiny, parochial level. Amnesia Moon, I think, is the first example, where one of the consequences of the unnamed, cataclysmic event is that people retreat into the local. Then again in Chronic City you talk about the problem, or at least the phenomenon, of ethics becoming local. It seems to me that “local” is another form of amnesia.

A. It’s a tense matter, yes. I think that’s right. This is very interestingAmnesia moonbecause it’s an area of persistent tension for me. I remember at one point coming across an argument that thrilled me in a way I can’t quite finish being thrilled by, where the movement in politically correct anthropology was to say that local culture needed to be ratified, respected, that there were matters of local ethos. And someone, problematising what had become a kind of mantra, said, “So, what if the abolitionists had accepted slavery as a local, cultural condition of the southern states? Would you take it to that point?” And this tension, which is very American but is also very much a part of growing up in the part of Brooklyn I grew up in, is—can you make a meaningful zone of operation and declare it sufficient unto itself? These neighbourhoods were attempts to divide middle class brownstones from the surrounding poverty, and that attempt was full of ethical disasters. The only way to sustain those assertions was through amnesia, blindness, blinkers, a kind of exaggerated, distorted perceptual field.

But on the other hand, if you look at my work, one of the real motifs in it is the fragility, beauty, and importance of subcultural life. Growing up as a child of sixties radicals and a grandchild of American communists in New York City, but in Brooklyn, which is a kind of bastard part of New York City, I was, without understanding it fully at the start, nestled within a whole series of subcultures and believed them initially to be much more dominant or lasting than many of them would turn out to be. They were, in fact, on the verge of extinction practically by the time I was coming into them! But I still feel very, very moved by the bravery of their assertion even if they turned out to be relatively temporary—“temporary autonomous zones” I think is the phrase.

And when you look at something like Amnesia Moon—set against this problem of the blindness or the ethical treacherousness of local preserves, of little fiefdoms, is the beauty of the family that assembles itself by the end of the book. The idea is that all you can do is make your own version and try to make it a more embracing, a more useful, a more genuinely utopian zone. America is a gigantic utopian experiment that because it’s too enormous to be meaningful, it’s too giant and abstract, breaks down into the states or into the communes or into the genres or the little zones where people try to make something that they believe in, that they think can work. And these things simultaneously exemplify American contemporary life and they’re very suspicious, because you’ve stepped out of the mainstream, you’ve gone off into your own little kingdom. I became very interested also—and you can see this in my writing in certain stories where I’m writing about couples, how strange it is to fall in love and the way you leave the world—that people, while believing that it’s a very beautiful and wonderful thing to go off and fall into romantic love, are also hell-bent on destroying it or normativising it. You know, “Have a family, join the larger crowd again! Stop sneaking off by yourselves!” Because there’s something very suspicious about the subculture of two that’s formed when people fall in love. And so I think I’ve always tried to figure out—what’s the right size of group to set up your little utopia with? Where and how can this be done, and can it be made to last a little while? If you look at Fortress of Solitude, this becomes very explicitly a book about soul fans as a subculture. Maybe that’s where true beauty lies. But can

they hold together?

Q. Or graffiti.

A. Or graffiti. Graffiti exemplifies the creative act as a kind of absurd—you know, any art making is a kind of terribly beautiful, terribly fragile and useless or non-viable utopian zone that’s being set up, where you can’t make any money, and people end up pitted against each other because it’s competitive, so the little utopias fall apart almost before they’re set up. And graffiti is a marvellously perverse one because in the view of the people who do it it’s this incredibly expressive, communal, selfless kind of art making—you know, they’re not paid, they risk life and limb to declare themselves part of this community—and to the people who don’t value it, it’s contemptible, illegal, destructive, and the price was usually to destroy the lives of the people who did it. But in that book another subculture, quite poignant to me, is the science fiction convention, where people go and for three days in a hotel where the staff literally finds them idiotic, they set up their perfect world, where they finally feel right and normal. And then on Sunday they check out and they go back to the life of being a loser elsewhere; they get back on their planes and it’s over. But for three days they had it going. And this is that same dream.

Q. I’m reminded of Perkus Tooth’s accusation that he levels at Chase Insteadman in Chronic City. He says, “You’re an amnesiac American because you have an inability to imagine these things have happened to anyone else,” or along those lines. So it seems to be that, yes, those small groups can be viable if at least you have some kind of awareness of a) difference and b) the fact that other subcultures or mini-utopias might well be having the same experiences as you.

A. Yes, absolutely, one that has a little more historical consciousness, perhaps, and is a little more capable of encompassing imperfection or paradox. In Amnesia Moon, Chaos, or Everett Moon, was living in one completely amnesiac, tyrannical, egotistical utopia at the beginning of the book. He pushes almost by instinct against that, out of that and slips through a whole series of others The little band, the little gang he’s got at the end consists of people who are accepting that some of them are being cared for and others have accepted the responsibility of caring for those that need caring for; that some of them are good at some things and some at others; and that lies and imperfections are going to slip in and out of their experience; that Chaos will go on dreaming and being susceptible to utopian lies, but that Melinda, for instance, is very good at snapping him out of it; and, you know, that they’ll act like a family but they’re not pretending that she’s really his daughter. If it can encompass a lot of ironies and perversities, it might be a little more workable, too.

Q. So to come to Chronic City. I was very interested in Perkus’ eye. Like Audrey in Leaving Brooklyn by Lynne Sharon Schwartz —I don’t know if you’ve read that?

A. I’ve not ever read that.

Q. She has a deviant eye.

A. Ah, I didn’t know that.

Q. I’d recommend it; it’s a great book. But anyway, in that novel Audrey actually uses it as a means of deconstructing what she calls the “seamless skin” on reality.

A. Perfect.

Q. In fact, it’s set in war time and there are a lot of cosy myths and fantasies that people use to shut out the horrors of “skeletal bodies in striped pyjamas clawing at barbed wire” (Schwartz 13). Her eye becomes this very powerful metaphor for how she breaks things down and fragments things. I wondered if you felt that Perkus’ eye has the same kind of metaphorical value?

A. Well, yes, I hope so. I mean, I don’t know if you were cataloguing them, probably not, but I tried to never use the same word—

Q. That was my next question—

As she climbed across the table
A. Good! You know, the metaphors I love most—and I guess the ultimate example of this in my writing is Lack in As She Climbed Across the Table—are the ones that feel each time they’re used as though they’re incredibly allegorically specific, but by the end they’ve been used in so many different lights that you think, “That was an allegorical concept or it was a symbol that, if it was simultaneously a symbol of a hundred different things, is it a symbol at all?” It’s like the metaphor as lens that can be used everywhere. I mean, Tourette’s becomes the same thing. I made a game of comparing Tourette’s to Brooklyn, to the subway, to conspiracy theories—

Q. To Prince.

A. To Prince, yes. If it’s suddenly applied to everything, then it stands in for consciousness itself. And his eye certainly is, I think, one of those, like the Lack, or like Tourette’s, or in a sense like dreaming is in Amnesia Moon or as the stone outcroppings are in a John Ford film. They mean everything and therefore not any one thing. But they mean it intensely, insistently; they demand that you go with them to that sense of meaning. One of the things that I was drawn to in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books—one of the things I love most in the story is the sense that it has the tone of allegory without having the one-to-one applicability of an allegory.

Q. My personal favourite, on this subject, was “mugwump eye.” Wonderful. Clearly, it’s that kind of multivalent symbol which may not even be a symbol, but it seemed to me also a kind of linguistic challenge to yourself, but also to the reader, to consider what language is capable of. It’s almost as if the need to keep finding different ways to describe this makes it indescribable.

A. It’s a slightly Lionel Essrog thing smuggled into Chase’s consciousness, that he can’t quit describing that eye.

Q. He has to keep smoothing it.

A. Yes—“maybe I can find the right word and I can stop looking at it! If I could just find the word, then I wouldn’t have to notice that  f***ing eye!”

Q. Because actually the characters in that novel are almost separated by the ones that are able not to look at it, the people who can deal with it.

A. Yes. Well, there’s also a little rhyme of Motherless Brooklyn. The running joke in Motherless Brooklyn is that no one knows what Tourette’s is, and then suddenly he goes to Maine and he meets that guy at the cabin who just simply looks at him and says, “You gotta spot of the old Tourette’s, don’t ya, son?” And it’s only when he’s shed his entire world that Lionel can be recognised, outside of Brooklyn. And it’s only when Perkus goes to live in the dog apartments and Sadie Zapping, who’s so frank with him, says, “Something’s wrong with your eye, isn’t it?”

Q. I wonder if you’d like to say something about ekphrasis, the description of other artworks in the text.

A. I’m thinking about this very much because I’m reading the collected stories of J. G. Ballard. It’s one of my pet things and one of the things I think is so radical about Ballard is he’s so interested in arts. Fiction is often very shy about the other arts.

Q. Absolutely. I think it’s Peter Wagner who said ekphrasis has a “Janus face” (Wagner 13). On the one hand, it gives voice to something, on the other hand it silences it or at least subsumes it within a different kind of text. I was thinking particularly of graffiti, which we’ve touched on already, but also the rock gig in You Don’t Love Me Yet.

A. And the father’s film, which is described for a page and a half of Fortress of Solitude

Q. Yes, there are lots of examples, even Laird Noteless’ chasms in Chronic City. Is it celebrating the power of writing, or are you also acknowledging artistic forms that challenge the power of what you do?

A. Well, I’m certainly very interested—I mean, I mentioned Rothko earlier in this, and I’ve also mentioned the uselessness of prose to do what John Ford does by pointing his camera at Monument Valley. I’m very interested in areas of artistic practice that the novel can knock on the door and never cross the threshold. I do very much like monumentality and endlessness. Like I recently saw Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour movie Out 1—it’s a fantastic experience. You know, ostensibly in many ways it’s in a narrative form—character, conversation, scenes, it endures through time much as a novel does (and I think narrative film has a very, very strong relationship to the novel, certainly in my experience)—but at the same time the film has sequences where, for thirty or forty minutes, actors are in a rehearsal doing an improv exercise where they only use guttural sounds instead of language. It’s a trance, it’s like listening to the most amazing trance music—very human, and very pre-verbal and very deep and totally elusive to the novel which, by comparison, just looks so helplessly busy with language. You know, you’re stuck with all this, like, buzzing of insects.

Q. Like Philip Roth said, “The book that won’t shut up.”

A. Right. And I’m drawn to the absolute in visual arts—Robert Smithson’s Earthworks, which is an obvious point of reference for Noteless. You know, he’s kind of—what would it be like if there was an urban Smithson that somehow was allowed to practise his work? But also, things that a cartoonist can do and get away with, like Sol Steinberg is always drawing skyscrapers that are inverted, that are holes in the ground. And I thought, “Well, what if someone made a Sol Steinberg skyscraper in Manhattan, as deep into the earth as the Empire State Building is high?” But they’d never be allowed to, and so the closest we ever get is Richard Serra, who makes Tilted Arc which, basically, if you put it out in the woods would be a negligible chunk of steel. Certainly, if you put it in Monument Valley no one would ever even notice it was there, but you put it in front of a building where people come out for their cigarette breaks and they’re very upset by it—“he’s ruined this area!” Because we all live in such close proximity to each other, so I wanted to think about what if a really monumental Earthworks kind of artist was set loose in Manhattan and allowed to ruin things.

And of course I was thinking about the gigantic hole at the bottom of Manhattan now, where those buildings were effectively reversed. We all live a stone’s throw from this chasm which just has this horrible authority and also invisibility. It’s deeply meaningful but we’re always just thinking, “What are they going to put there?” or “I can’t believe they haven’t put something there yet.” You know, we don’t grant any reality to the hole in the ground, even though it’s been with us for pushing toward a decade, this unbelievable hole in the ground. We don’t take it as itself; it’s only a delayed plan. So I’ve lost the very beginning of this question!

Q. It’s about ekphrasis, the power of language.

A. I’m very, very excited about it. You see me trying to go this way in some of my earlier short stories that are probably unworkable, ones I didn’t collect, actually. There are a lot of artists and impossible artworks in those stories, I guess in the manner of Ballard, specifically. But also Kafka, with The Hunger Artist. You know, conceptual pieces and people doing things.

Q. Music has such a special status because it’s so directly—

A. It’s so emotional, so physical and you can’t describe it—

Q. It’s like “hiding in plain sight” again, isn’t it, because it’s secret.

A. Yes, it drives you crazy, it drives you absolutely crazy! And in a way, ironically, I got closer to it in Fortress of Solitude where a character spends, at some level, six hundred pages testifying to the uselessness of music to his experience, than I did in You Don’t Love Me Yet where I pretend it can be present. There was one reviewer of that book who I think said, “Finally, we don’t hear the music,” and I thought, “I can’t argue with you. You don’t hear the music!” It wants to be a pop single and you don’t hear the music.

Q. You read rock journalism about the gig, which is a different thing.

A. Yes.

Q. It was interesting what you said about Dylan, because it strikes me that Fortress of Solitude is about a man’s attempt to find ways of remediating adolescent experience, and it repeatedly defeats him. He never really had a graffiti tag of his own, so his liner notes and his music journalism are a way of remediating what he’s experienced. And it seems to be about that problem: they’re not adequate to the job. Words are certainly not.

A. Absolutely. He can’t get there, he’s just always on the other side of the pane of glass. That’s truer, finally, unfortunately, to a writer’s situation in relationship to music than the sort of sleight of hand I attempted in You Don’t Love Me Yet, which is to say, “Oh, let’s have it, let’s put it in the book, let’s dance to this book!” And everyone just couldn’t dance!

Q. So the last question—forgive me for this, it’s a clichéd question, but I’ll ask it because I’ve been at a conference and everyone was talking about it. Let’s just suppose for a moment that the novel is dying, or that it’s become residual practice. Do you see ekphrasis—the use of the graphic novel, comic books, music, various things that you and other writers are putting in to your novels—as a way of reinvigorating the novel? Or is it just another thing that novelists can do and have always done?

A. I would just come down so strongly on the other side that I’ll just be very boring, in a way, by not even flirting with the question. I’ll even take a step back and say because I write enthusiastically about popular culture and import gestures from comic books and film and “joke” literary forms, that handful of facts causes me to be mistaken for something less than the extremely traditional writer that I am. I feel it’s only honest talking to someone who’s devoting as much attention to my work as you are and has surely come to that same conclusion, to say that I know that in the history of fiction as a practice, I’m a thoroughgoing embodiment of tradition and not a radical at all. I have acknowledged the fact of radical experiment and made sometimes some intertextual jokes about writing something more metafictional or experimental than I ever have troubled to do. My work acknowledges the existence of those experiments but I’m like a nineteenth-century novelist, really. I’m so devoted to the traditional means, I’m so in love with them—trying to gobble up the world around me by taking its measure in scenes and characters and dialogue and paragraph and plot. Those tools are so enthralling to me. I’m totally committed to them, and so there’s nothing about my work that I think should threaten anyone short of the mandarins who just don’t want the Fantastic Four ever to be mentioned inside a novel. There’s nothing else I do that isn’t the strongest vote possible for the viability of everything that was invented before Modernism, and then Modernism bent and tested and mostly confirmed the use of. And I just feel there’s no contradiction whatsoever between my interests and what the novel can and should do.

Q. In the end, all the things that we’ve been talking about, thematic concerns, aside from formal concerns—the question of amnesia, the question of social groupings and cultural groupings, and the need to recognise difference—these have always been the novel’s concerns. It’s not about textuality.

A. It’s not about textuality. People who have bought a line that generations are threatening because they threaten the forms will then ascribe to some sort of “threat to the form” the discomfort they feel, in fact, with being confronted with subject matter or milieu that are uncomfortable, or levels of emotion—despair or pensiveness or regret —that are uncomfortable.

I think Fortress of Solitude, for instance, is an upsetting book for many people and they’ll say, “Well, you changed the book in the middle; you threw out what you were doing and you did this other thing. Dylan is a likeable character and the book is a traditional book, and then you did this first-person manoeuvre and turned him into a shit.” And I think, “Well, you didn’t really read the first half, did you? He’s just as much a shit. He betrays every allegiance and is completely craven when you wish he would be courageous, beginning in first grade and on through every one of his childhood friendships. He’s the same character. What he becomes is an adult, and you didn’t really want him to.” I don’t know how to say this without sounding like I’m comparing my book to these consummate masterpieces, these singular masterpieces of the tradition, but Dylan stops being someone you can feel sorry for and charmed by and becomes someone who perpetrates class injustice, in exactly the same sense that Pip in Great Expectations and Isabel in Portrait of a Lady do. Both of them are revealed as complicit with the systems that they suffered under. The books take the exact same structure in relationship to their main characters. It doesn’t mean that I’ve matched that achievement, and sure, there’s a “Liner Note” slipped inside the middle, so you can think that I’m some sort of problematic, postmodern bomb-thrower. But that’s nothing more than evidence of Dylan’s distancing manoeuvres. I’ve just said, “The most efficient way for you to see how his becoming a writer is his way of extending his suit of armour into the world and making it operational is to show it being done.” It shows just how craftily you can appear to be taking something deeply to heart and hardening your defences against it at the same time.

Works Cited

“Interview with Jonathan Lethem.” Post Road Magazine 5 (Fall / Winter 2002).

Accessed 25 September 2008. <http://www.postroadmag.com/Issue_5/Etcetera5/Lethem.htm>

Lethem, Jonathan. “The Beards.” The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays. New York: Doubleday, 2005: 125-49.

Roth, Philip. Zuckerman Unbound. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.

Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. Leaving Brooklyn. London: Mandarin, 1990.

Sussler, Betty. “Jonathan Lethem.” Bomb. 2 Oct. 2008.

Suvin, Darko. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Wagner, Peter ed. Icons-Text-Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediary. New York: de Gruyter, 1996.

Further reading

If you are interested in Jonathan Ldethem, you may also be interested in Paul Auster. You can read an artcile about him here.

Between Fabulation and Silence: in Search of the Paul Auster Effect by Adriana Neagu. Adriana Neagu examines the key concepts of fabulation, aliterature, realism, idealism, memory, identity, aesthetic consciousness, textuality, space in the writing of Paul Auster, and considers how it is influenced by ideas as disparate as existentialism and silent movies, as well as by the writings of authors such as Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka.

Ekphrasis is the graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art.


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