On 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
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
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
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.
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
A. Well, I mean it’s two, really.
Q. There’s a mention of one in Chronic City, I think, briefly—
A. Yes, 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
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
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.Yes. 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
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
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
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
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 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 of 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.
|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
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
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
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 interestingbecause 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.
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—
|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
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
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
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
A. It’s so emotional, so physical and you can’t describe
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
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
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
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
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
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.
“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.
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.
ed. Icons-Text-Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediary. New York: de Gruyter, 1996.
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.