Conversations with Jonathan Lethem (Literary Conversations Series)

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My grandmother remained a kind of a cipher, a zone of uncertainty. Then the formal necessities of making a large piece of fiction, gravitational in their own right, drew me even further from any question of factuality or confession.


As it happens, I have no idea whether my grandmother ever got anywhere near a Communist cell. It would seem that that should matter enormously to me, but it actually stopped mattering at all. These questions are the kind you either address in their full inflection, or else you deny them totally, throw them out — as many writers, including myself, in most conversations, tend to do. Yet do any of these characters equate to portraits of my mother? The results are often leaden. And yet here it was necessary that I build a giant armature of factual situations in my head, a historical diorama to move through, even if I then contradicted it or blew it up at whim.

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I researched rhetoric and propaganda, as well as dull sociological stuff. Certain memoirs of Greenwich Village were good — the terrific Dave Van Ronk book, which, judging from the trailer, was a source for the new Coen Brothers movie as well. It slowed it the hell down. I started Dissident Gardens right after finishing Chronic City.

On the strength of my first impression of what I wanted to do, I bluffed out a odd pages. As a result, I did little writing for the better part of three years, instead researching and reading. I always have books in mind when I write. There are gestures in various directions, some quite specific. Your previous novels have dealt with science fiction and noir genre conventions, or included fantastical elements, like the magic ring in Fortress of Solitude.

Why did you make this decision to write a realistic novel at this point in your career? I never make the division in the strict way that your question suggests. Though I accept that some readers do. Forster and Bernard Malamud. We can develop the conversation along both lines, because there is a politics of realism.

Realism enforces a normative sense of what constitutes reality, and embeds this enforcement in the contract between the reader and the writer. In the context of that argument, realism fails to interrogate all sorts of things which something else — what are we going to call it? Not that un-realisms are guaranteed to accomplish it either!

The Literary Imagination: Jonathan Lethem and Kim Stanley Robinson on Philip K. Dick

Are you sure they are? How much of your own politics are in Dissident Gardens?

Literary Conversations Series

Is there a character whose political views best represent your own? If you really want me to pick? Cicero Lookins occupies a space that seems politically nuanced but largely crumbles into contradiction. His paralysis, his outrage, his vanities, these I identify with most. I spoke at the protest one afternoon and was deeply stirred by it. It was important to me. The Occupy ideology still exists online but the physical camps have been all broken up.

Do you have any feelings about how it has ended? The loss of the camps was striking, because the physical reality of those places was eloquent but also unsustainable — obviously. They camps became places where the world as it really is was made visible. I should be clear that I was not one of the activists. You had to go to the meetings. You could remark intelligibly that you were anti-capitalist, because suddenly there was something called capitalism.

And Occupy now springs to visibility in communities that need rescue, as after the hurricane in New York City.

Project MUSE - Conversations with Jonathan Lethem

I find it very mysterious and suggestive: Late capitalism frequently claims these to be synonymous. One characteristic of all of your work is your attention to sentencing. Your sentences are fantastic. You discussed reading aloud the entirety of Chronic City as you wrote it. Did you do that with Dissident Gardens too? I had no opportunity, or perhaps lacked the will, to recreate that exact experiment.

I do write by ear, and try to find ways to keep the book insistently engaged on that level. Particularly given some of the material in Dissident Gardens , I wanted to push tendentious language aside in favor of something alive, even if it makes me look less smart. I suppose there are some anti-language novelists but I never get to hang around with them. I was already in Berlin, so that decision made itself. Then I seized on Singapore too, pretty arbitrarily, and then built the book around that decision. A measure of the courage I needed came from setting a tiny sequence of Dissident Gardens in Nicaragua.

It was new for me. I thought you did that East Germany section brilliantly, by the way, not to show my fanboy cards too early. I had to work very hard on that section — I researched the hell out of it. There was a lot of heavy lifting in the process. I tend to follow a book with a sort of antidote, the mouthwash to the previous one. Where else have you done it? A lot of people saw that novel as a bit of perverse tomfoolery between two serious books: The Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City. But in Chronic City , I situated my four idiotic, self-involved characters in the foreground and an allegorical catastrophe landscape in the background, like setting Seinfeld in front of a Breughel or Bosch painting.

I had to do one in order to get to the other. I wanted to avoid Big Thoughts. I was interested in moving one character through a series of set-pieces, a tale. What about the Behringer section? How does that long perspective switch fit into this? The voice needs to transpose into something else. Even in a book as simple as Motherless Brooklyn , told in the first person, there comes a point where I abruptly introduce the third-person subjective account of Julia Minna. You can see this as being, you know, my characteristic protest. And anyway, we might be the ones who need to be fixed or rescued.

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Manny Farber coined the terms to gesture at what he thought the difference was between the really artistically interesting films of Hollywood in the s, the Termite Art, and then the prestige pictures, things that would be nominated for Oscars, which people thought were important — these were the White Elephant films.

Well, I wrote that essay because I was so perplexed … I mean, these are happy problems to have. To be published at all is a privilege, to be read at all is a privilege. My situation was that I came from a sort of Red-Diaper feeling of political marginality. Dick, or the type of filmmakers that Manny Farber is interested in.

I loved the termite position before I was old enough to have any self-conscious thoughts about what it meant. I just dug it. I was going to be Patricia Highsmith, you know? So, when I woke up one day and realized that the way I was being published and reviewed, the way I was situated in the culture — for lots of reasons that I was completely complicit with, no one forced this on me — it looked pretty White Elephant-ish, even to me.

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I was really confused by it. Now your work gets White Elephantized with all these highfalutin questions.

Conversations with Jonathan Lethem

Yes, and I answer them! A skeptic could say: Well, if you so little identify with all of this ponderous career stuff, why do you consent to give an interview? Why are you talking right now? I happen to be a very obliging person, so when people began to be interested in my work I wanted to meet them and talk. My defaults are set to engagement.

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  • I mean, here I am teaching creative writing at a liberal arts college. And maybe this does, in a weird way, come out of my growing up in a commune and with communitarian ideals: I lean toward participation. So I participated in my own experience. And then one day I looked up and from the outside it was perfectly reasonable to look at me the way I, as a kid, would have looked at someone like E. Doctorow, say — a guy whose work was well read and White Elephant-ish. As a young reader I would have said, skip those white elephants, read Philip K.

    Dick, Charles Willeford, Boris Vian — something more subterranean. I might equally have said Beckett or Gertrude Stein. Anything but the kind of middlebrow definition that I guess, in a way, the particular nature of the success of The Fortress of Solitude settled me into. I think somewhere between my innate and now totally defunct sense of being a marginal figure, a marginal person … I mean, here I am: I still feel like a stealth operator, creeping along, occasionally visible on the schoolyard and instantly subject to being reminded of my buglike insignificance and repulsiveness.

    What do you do with that? What do you do with those two things? I can only talk about them. And I did get lucky. But what I love and care about are almost always somehow located in the cultural undertow. Even if I find myself weirdly able to keep giving you different variations on the theme. I grew up reading The Paris Review interviews, you know.

    There would be something about the way they defined their sense of purpose, or their commitment to the craft, that would just be electric for me. A body of utterances. But I knew I had other kinds of things I wanted to do as a writer.