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Jonathan Lethem: Dabbler in Tribes
posted 25 February 2009
Jonathan Lethem was born in Manhattan, lived with his family in Kansas City for several years, then returned to attend the High School of Music and Art and New York and private school Bennington in Vermont on an art scholarship. While there, his focus shifted from painting to writing.

"The Happy Man" (1991) was a Nebula and Sturgeon finalist. Other notable stories include "'Forever,' Said the Duck" (1993), "The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom" (1995), "Five Fucks" (1996), "Ninety Percent of Everything" (1999, with James Patrick Kelly), This Shape We're In (2001), "Super Goat Man" (2004), and "Lostronaut" (2007). His short work has been collected in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (1996), Kafka Americana (1999, with Carter Scholz), Men and Cartoons (2004), and How We Got Insipid (2006).

Lethem's first novel, futuristic detective story Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), was nominated for Nebula and Crawford awards, and won the Locus Award. SF novels Amnesia Moon (1995), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and Girl in Landscape (1998) followed. His next novel, which catapulted him to mainstream literary success, was Motherless Brooklyn (1999), winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Photo by Amelia Beamer

Jonathan Lethem: author's website
The Fortress of Solitude (2003), set in Brooklyn during the '70s, '80s, and '90s, combines semi-autobiographical material with a magical ring and superpowers. You Don't Love Me Yet (2007) is a romantic comedy set in the Los Angeles music business.

Lethem edited anthologies The Vintage Book of Amnesia (2001) and Da Capo Best Music Writing: The Year's Finest Writing on Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country and More (2002), and he edited the Library of America volumes Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s (2007) and Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s.

In 2005, Lethem was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, often called a "genius grant." He lives with his third wife, filmmaker Amy Barrett, and their son Everett Barrett Lethem (born 2007), dividing their time between Brooklyn and Maine.

Excerpts from the interview:

“When people begin a conversation where the underlying terms imply that I've somehow transformed my writing, I always want to say no. 'The publishing, the context, your expectation, the readership... everything's changed except my approach' -- which has been an unholy amalgam from the very beginning, and always reinvents itself according to the project at hand. I think I've become a much more capable and conscious writer and I'm proud of the growth in my capacities, but my relationship to what people think of as category or genre doesn't come from the work itself; that comes from publishing context.

“What made Thomas Disch one of my favorite science fiction writers was the innate literary ambition, the scrambling of different methods, the appropriation of all sorts of vocabularies and strategies, motifs from high and low, genre and what's called 'mainstream' (which I've always thought is sort of a chimera). Writers like Disch, who were not just accidentally literary or happened to write beautifully enough to be championed as literary but really aspired to do it all at once and to make the categories impossible, at least in terms of their own work -- that set the ground that I began to work on, and that hasn't changed a bit. It's an incredible testament to first impressions.

“Michael Chabon has become a friend, and we talk about reading and writing. The irony is, I think Michael is more deeply a fanboy than I ever was. He's the one with the wall of Fantasy Press first editions in his house. I was always a little mixed up. To begin with, I was reading Dick and Disch and the New Wave writers, and to some degree Heinlein and Bester, very avidly. But I found an absolute resistance in other areas in the field. I was not able to get any traction reading things that are seen as classic science fiction, pantheon authors. (I won't slag anyone.) I had very definite limits.”


“For me, the mise en scene of the science fiction world -- the rocket ship, the ray gun, the alien -- could serve as a series of supercharged metaphors, symbols, allegories, never resolvable in any single direction as though they could simply be decoded and dismissed, but containing an urgent, powerful description of mental states, cultural states, situations that were not being described in other ways.

“This is what you found in the science fiction I was so responsive to (Dick, Ballard, Delany in many ways), and the stuff I wanted to write that I thought of as science fiction had that same nested quality: the fantastic is standing simultaneously for internal and external realities. There's a possibility that it stands for a superpowerful landscape of the mind, and at the same time as an external reality. It was that doubleness I always looked for, always wanted to create.”


“One of the things I've come to understand about my own powerful attraction to the field at the beginning of my career has to do with its vitality as a subculture per se. I grew up in a kind of hippie communal household. My father was a painter, and there was a very strong belief in the Bohemian tribe. As a New Yorker, I believed I was an American but also part of this other identity that believed itself a little weirder, a little more special. And it was in the science fiction subculture that I first discovered, in the Letters columns of used 1950s Galaxys, a subculture that had its own codes and contexts, and that was very thrilling for me. It reminded me, in a way, of the bohemian dream. And when I found my areas of resistance or dissatisfaction, it was when I found the limits of the dream. Some of my particular aspirations weren't playing well, weren't signifying completely, and I had to push into other zones.”


“The book I'm working on now again takes realism and a very extreme kind of fantasy and smashes them together like a Robert Chamberlain sculpture -- it just forces them to coexist. But the flavor's very different, I hope totally new for me. Its principles are derived from the way Fortress of Solitude works, but it doesn't have the nostalgic patina, and it doesn't have all the music references of the LA book.

“Some people will read the book I've got in progress and laugh at how much I've come full-circle to a Philip K. Dick pastiche, but there will be a layer I don't think will require that understanding whatsoever. (I could ramble on about what would happen if Saul Bellow and Philip K. Dick collaborated on a horror novel.) My goal is to have it explode category by its breadth, not because of some opposition to the genre methods but by its engulfment of them. Finally, you can't say 'It's this or this'; you have to say 'It's this, and, and, and, and....'”


“Philip K. Dick created almost a legend for himself of his disreputability: he built a palace of disreputability and moved inside it. At a certain level, I think he said 'You can't fire me -- I quit.' Even some of his most ambitious later books seem to be almost deliberately scarred by the inclusion of gestures, jokes, references that make them aliterary intentionally, as though he's saying 'Fuck you.' Or 'I don't have a passport into that world, but I'm free to do anything I want.'

“A book as fundamentally literary as Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said -- very lyrical, very beautiful -- has moments where the surface breaks down into smutty jokes. In Ubik, somebody calls someone else a 'hobbit,' and it's this moment of self-loathing in-jokery that completely throws you out of the page, especially if you're trying to read him in a very literary context. And I think those moments of breakdown in the surface of his work are quite striking.”

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