[Editor's Note: Jonathan Lethem will read at Powell's City of Books on Burnside on Sunday, October 25, at 7:30 p.m.]
For me, there's a weird, unfathomable gulf — I almost wrote gulp — between the completion of a novel and its publication. Some days this duration feels interminable, as though the book has voyaged out like some spacecraft on a research mission, populated by forgotten losers like the ones in John Carpenter's Dark Star, a craft cut loose by those who launched the thing and now grown irretrievable, bent by space and time into something distorted and not worth guiding home. Then there are other days, where the book might be a pitch that's left your hand too soon, now burning towards home plate, whether to be met by a catcher's mitt or the sweet part of the bat, you can't possibly know. Hopeless to regret it once you feel it slipping past your fingertips. Just watch. (That's the gulp.) The weirdness is in that interlude where the book has quit belonging to you, but doesn't belong to anyone else yet, hasn't been inscribed in all its rightness and wrongness by the scattershot embrace and disdain of the world. It's a version of Schrödinger's cat, unchangeably neither-dead-nor-alive in its box.
Sometimes, in that interlude, I find myself going over the collage of notes, the scraps of inspiration or non sequitur that I gathered up and clung to when there wasn't yet anything else to believe in. I don't outline books or make systematic notes, nor draw up charts or character sketches, but I do accumulate shards of utterances, like a ransom note or early punk-rock flyer. That's to say, I glue shit together and stare at it, wishing for my book. I like glue. Once I start writing, I barely ever glance at the Frankenstein-scrapbook thing again. I don't need to. Whatever I've written is a thousand percent more useful than what I'd imagined I'd write. Still, it can be strange afterwards to recall the book I imagined before the real one came along to blot it out.
Here's an item from Reuter's, headlined "Germany: Impossible to Love the Little Guy? Not Quite":
The Berlin Zoo came to the defense of a 3-month-old polar bear cub named Knut, rejecting claims by animal rights campaigners that he should be killed by lethal injection because he has become too dependent on humans. The cub's fate has gripped the capital since his birth in December, when he and his twin brother were rejected by their mother, a former circus bear.
Everything in this clipping fills me with awe, and now a certain ache of longing: how could I have failed to get Knut into my book? I should have written of nothing else. "A former circus bear" — what did Knut's mother see in her cubs that repulsed her, or was she afraid that if she loved them they'd become circus bears as well? Was she clownish or acrobatic? Did she come to love the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd? And then there's the superb certainties of those activists, as fierce as any fundamentalist religion. "The hand-rearing had condemned the cub to a dysfunctional life," according to Frank Albrecht, the lead activist. I can't keep from wondering if Albrecht's mother was a circus performer as well. Even the Berlin Zoo — I've wandered past its stink myself, thinking of David Bowie and U2, amazed by the German teenagers who panhandle and deal drugs outside the zoo station of the Berlin subway.
What book did I think I was going to write?
Here's a sentence from Adam Phillips's essay "Nuisance Value," in which he's attempting to paraphrase George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London: "Criminals, Orwell seems to imply in the book, are the people we punish for being a nuisance; artists are the people we reward for being a nuisance; successful businessmen are criminals disguised as artists." I could read that sentence a thousand times and not understand what it means, and yet it seems to explain every secret thing I've always suspected about contemporary existence, about our individual fates under the condition of "late Capitalism" (or whatever our reality should be called); the sentence is like a John Ashbery poem to me in that way. I wanted to write a whole novel based on the sentence, but did I manage it? Maybe that's what I liked about the Reuter's wire-piece about Knut: It seemed like it already was a novel based on the Adam Phillips sentence. The activists judged Knut to be a nuisance, not bear enough: he'd been reduced to criminal or homeless status by his dependency. Knut was Down and Out. The zoo, defending him, elevated him to the status of an artist, an unprecedented, mongrel creation that, while useless and perhaps even dysfunctional, provided more than adequate "nuisance value." The clipping had, after all, also mentioned that "[t]he zoo is braced for crowds." Money changes everything.
Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them part of the world's experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished; without this effort, indeed, the entire world would merely be an uninhabitable darkness.
Those words are James Baldwin's, from Another Country, and I collaged them into my notes too — retyped them, actually, as I've just done again — wanting my book, whatever it was going to be, to live up to their challenge, to drag some small thing out into the light, out of the dungeon. And then I made up some characters and put them in a story and hammered out a few thousand sentences, tried to mete out surprise and delight, and got stuck with that odd novelist's burden, of spending so much time with my stick figures that they seem painfully real and deliciously dear to me. But, really, who knows whether I've done any of what I most wanted to do? My book is a starship drifting loose from orbit, a pitch whose trajectory was shaped by the palm and fingers of my hand but now subjects itself to the mysteries of the air, past my fingertips. It's a meal I cooked but can't taste myself. I want the reader to taste what I first tasted in those fragments and clippings, my pathetic laminated plan for the future, like the collage of scenes of middle-class family life the parolee James Caan shows off to Tuesday Weld in the heartbreaking first-date scene in Michael Mann's Thief. My hope is that once I began the carpentry of storytelling I still remembered to pry open the gaps where the light could flood in, where Knut might roam, even if Knut went unnamed.
The great actor and director John Cassavetes, discussing what he rated as a failed performance by a well-known actor in an acclaimed film he hated — Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now — made a remark which haunts me in its implications: he said he thought he might have been able to do something with the role, as badly written as he considered it to be, if as an actor he'd been allowed to insert some "stops" into the performance. What he meant by "stops," I believe, were simply gaps or hesitations, actorly silences. Moments when thoughts left unexplored by the words themselves could be allowed to flood in. This possibility has always seemed to me a beautiful one, first for its craftsman-like insight into the performer's art, but also in its suggestion that even a despised and oppressive text, a piece of junk like Cassevetes felt Apocalypse Now to be, might be worth this attempt at salvage. In other words, even a dishonest world might be worth trying to inhabit honestly. For isn't the actor's plight strangely like our own, or Knut's, dropped into a world scripted before we were born and against our wishes?
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Jonathan Lethem is the author of seven novels. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Lethem has also published his stories and essays in The New Yorker, Harper's, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the New York Times, among others.
Books mentioned in this post
Jonathan Lethem is the author of Chronic City