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Jonathan Lethem Takes the Long Way Home

In the four years following the appearance of Jonathan Lethem's first novel, a surreal, futuristic noir called Gun, with Occasional Music, the author covered a tremendous amount of fictional territory: a post-apocalyptic road novel (Amnesia Moon), a hilarious academic parody (As She Climbed across the Table), and a western in outer space (Girl in Landscape). But it wasn't until 1999 and the publication of Motherless Brooklyn, a masterful literary work featuring a young detective with Tourette's syndrome, that a large mainstream audience discovered the charms of Lethem's work. Jonathan Lethem

Now, four years later, The Fortress of Solitude introduces readers to Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, two boys, best friends, growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. Dylan is white. Mingus is black. Raised by sullen, single fathers, together and alone the young neighbors awaken to life like loosed animals on the streets. From their unlikely, conflicted friendship Lethem concocts a magical portrait of class and race, art and commerce, confinement and escape.

"Lethem's mock-heroic voice, full of innocence and mischief, perfectly captures the challenges of childhood, the desperation to belong, the acute sensitivity to embarrassment, the unquestioning endurance of adults' absurd behavior," Ron Charles cheered in the Christian Science Monitor. "This is daring stuff, as dazzling for its style as for its politics."

Dave: A steady progression of style and form is evident over the course of your novel-writing career, from Gun, with Occasional Music, little by little, to The Fortress of Solitude.

Jonathan Lethem: I think so, yes.

Dave: Have you always been conscious of it?

Lethem: One thing I could say, which is very specific, is I had this book in mind, and in some ways was already daring myself to try to write it, before I thought of Motherless Brooklyn. Then I got onto this notion of a detective with Tourette's, and that seemed kind of clever and focused and very write-able, whereas this other material was foggy and intimidating, so I decided to write the shorter book first and wait to tackle the other. Seven years ago, when I conceived Motherless Brooklyn, I pushed what would become The Fortress of Solitude further down the line.

Of course that had a funny result because a lot of the sentiment about Brooklyn leaked into Motherless Brooklyn. It's part of what made that book so special, I think. I expected to write a book of verbal pyrotechnics about a detective with Tourette's, but then I set it in Brooklyn, and it was as if I'd tricked myself. A lot of that autobiographical feeling got in.

But even before that, in manuscripts I began when I was seventeen and eighteen and just declaring myself a writer, there are traces of scenes that I wanted to write, impulses I had to create fiction set in a childhood analogous to my own. It's been distilling for a very long time. At a certain point it became a conscious process of gathering the tools I needed to make this book.

Dave: Motherless Brooklyn addressed Brooklyn directly but not in such an openly autobiographical manner.

Lethem: Lionel Essrog, those pages where he talks about Mad magazine or Prince or just a certain building or sandwich in New York City that he likes? It seems very banal, but that was a breakthrough for me. I had never allowed myself to write about real stuff before. The nature of Lionel's attention span and his garrulousness, his enthusiasm for stuff, taught me go ahead and write about things I liked. To stop and write about a Prince song or whatever. And that obviously was something I needed to free myself to do in a big way in order to write about the cultural backdrop in this book, all the music and the film and the graffiti.

Dave: Details aside, though, Motherless Brooklyn is a detective story, so it still relies on many of those familiar styles and conceits more common to the earlier books. In that sense, it seems more consciously constructed and I don't mean that as criticism.

Lethem: No, in a neutral sense, I've always been an extremely contrived writer. My work has been concept-heavy.

Dave: Would you say that it's been more liberating or more constricting to jettison some of the contrivances?

Lethem: I sometimes use the word "exoskeleton" of plot or concept. With the first couple books, there was always an exoskeleton of concept, which I then filled with all sorts of ephemera, emotions, autobiographical feeling, jokes, and so forth. But first there was always that exoskeleton of plot or concept: Let's put Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler together, or Let's put Don DeLillo and Italo Calvino together.

I see many senses in which the turning point book for me is Girl in Landscape. That book does have a very prominent concept that you can name, and it seems very exaggerated let's do a John Ford western in space but the way I constructed character and the way I wrote scenes in that book was much more intuitive and emotional. It was much more of an exploration. In the first couple chapters, I was daring myself to be more personal. I was relying on my cleverness and my concept a lot less. It's much more felt. I knew I was never going back after that.

Motherless Brooklyn has its own very prominent hook or concept, but the voice was so much an outpouring of emotion and enthusiasm. It was kind of a crazy Valentine to Brooklyn and the Tourettic parts of my own personality, the chaotic instinct for destroying language and reconfiguring it in a vaguely Joycean way. I was just embracing stuff wildly. It's like a big wet kiss, that book. It's still a lot more emotional and much freer than the earlier work.

Conversely, I know The Fortress of Solitude seems so open-structured and so much determined by emotion and character rather than any exoskeleton of plot, but I see continuity with my earlier work, ways in which it is controlled, or a study, as well.

I've always been very open about influence not just in confessing it to others, but between me and myself. I've always been very aware of Oh, I'm really trying to do some DeLillo here or Here I'm trying to write a scene that's all Shirley Jackson. I know when I'm doing it, and I like it. I feel comfortable there. I wanted to write a longer book, so I thought about long books I loved: Dickens and James Baldwin's Another Country and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth; very recent books of Philip Roth's that grab big chunks of the world and character and place? they give so much, they present so many characters, and the voice is so emotional and impassioned. I would look at Of Human Bondage and Magic Mountain and try to understand why I love them the way I do. I let myself think about the way big books are structured, and specifically the way a coming-of-age novel that seems only to be guided by the story of the characters' emotional or psychological discoveries nevertheless has its own underlying structure. Those books can be seen as their own genre.

Dave: And still, when you sat down to write this book, you must have faced new challenges.

Lethem: The emotion and the passion in my early books is embedded in metaphor and symbols. It's not allegorical, but it has the flavor of allegory because everything is embedded with meaning. In The Fortress of Solitude, I've almost reversed my process completely. I've let the meaning spill out of every symbol and metaphor and stream around very openly. I challenged myself to do that by making the book broad and corny, by doing certain things on the nose. Any time I felt ashamed of a choice, I thought, It's probably because it's the right choice. For example: awarding Dylan pretty much my exact address and my exact birthday so that I would be forced to confront my interest in the cultural material of my childhood. Calling him Dylan and calling Mingus Mingus it was a way to throw myself at the material with my arms flung open, without any armor.

Dave: I haven't seen too many reviews of the new book yet, but what I've read tends to speak of it, in the context of your earlier writing, at least, as a realist novel. So far, in what I've read, the reviewers have not wanted to take on Doily's ring.

Lethem: It's true: That's been skirted quite a lot. But of course it's such a big book. Even the best pieces I've seen about it the pieces I liked best, I should say, the ones that gratify my own impression of how I wanted the book to work it's still a blind man and the elephant thing. You could write about it as a book about the arts; you could write about it as a book about race or childhood; you could write about the comic books; you could write about the music. People can only say so much.

Doily's ring has fallen off the table a few times. A few other times it's been objected to. Those people have said, "This is a terrific book but why did he have to do that?" Of course, I'm fascinated by that reaction. To me, the ring is so intrinsic, so knit into what the book is doing in every other sense, but people who don't like the ring speak of it as though it could be quarantined. Why did he bother? It's like a series of asides about flying and invisibility and if he just didn't make those asides I really would have liked this book. But I think it's deeply structured into the material. It seems that way to me.

Before I had anything else, I saw a cruddy superhero, a bum superhero, leaping from one side of Nevin Street to the other, and knew I wanted to write about real Dean Street with a pathetic superhero flying over it. That was as basic to this book as anything.

Dave: Dylan's constantly getting yoked by the black kids in the neighborhood, and there's not much Mingus can do about it. They're each subject to much stronger forces on the street than any one kid can confront. Meanwhile, they're introduced to this other world of superheroes by the comic books of the day. I loved the bit about the black superhero who can't speak because his voice could destroy the world?

Lethem: Black Bolt.

Dave: A great reference.

Lethem: It's one of those great twists in the world of comic books: He's called Black Bolt, but his skin is white he's got a black costume. That was the trick with some of the Marvel superheroes. Something that was meaningful to me about them was that they were all kind of black. Spiderman and Black Bolt and Omega the Unknown are sort of black even though they're white.

The other thing about Marvel superheroes, as opposed to DC, is that when Superman is Superman, that's who he really is; Clark Kent is a pretense. When he's Superman, he's fulfilled; he's in his right place. And Batman is really Batman; Bruce Wayne is the disguise. With the Marvel superheroes, it's the other way: When they put on their costume, they're pretending. Despite their powers, they have massive imposter syndrome.

To me those motifs fit together with other things that are so basic to the book: the sense in childhood of powerlessness alongside fantasies of power; the sense of helplessness and the inability to take care of even yourself but at the same time having an enormous yearning to rescue people like your parents or your best friend who's a year ahead of you in school and who is, in any practical sense, usually rescuing you. These yearnings that match the feelings of wanting to be a superhero? Wanting to sing like Al Green when you really can't sing at all, that's a superpower the ring never offers Dylan, but he'd probably value it even more highly.

Dave: Race is another difficult subject to address. It's hard to know where to start.

Lethem: People want to talk about race, but they're dreadfully afraid of saying something wrong, which is one of the subjects of the book: the suffocation in silence of certain topics. I couldn't name the awkwardness of my school days for so long. Really it wasn't until I threw myself at the material and let myself be helpless in the face of it. But it's about unnamable stuff and it's still unnamable. The book doesn't solve that problem. It just pokes at it.

Dave: You've written at length about music, in this novel and elsewhere. Did you ever give music a shot?

Lethem: Well, I'm bad. I was trained as a visual artist. My father is a painter. I had some facility there. And I inherited a great verbal gift from my mother. I was a voracious reader. I feel as born to the role of a writer as you can be. I'm very much in love with language and narrative, but I've never succeeded in learning a second language. I tried to study music three or four times, and I couldn't do it. I don't think I have an ear for a second vocabulary of any kind. I'm too embedded in English in some way. I'm helpless.

I fronted a band in Berkeley briefly, but I was like a mumbling Lou Reed rapper guy; it was not going anywhere because I can't sing.

Who was it that said, "All art aspires to the condition of music"? It's like the pure art. I just try to make the prose as musical as I can. That's the only place I have to live it out.

Dave: When Julie Orringer was here recently, she was talking about how much she enjoyed The Fortress of Solitude. One thing she singled out, what impressed her, was the pacing: "the way he managed to modulate the pace of the novel," she said. In a book this big, you really need to keep the reader moving.

Lethem: It's a kind of oceanic book: thirty years, so many speaking parts, so many characters. As much as the task in writing a big book is to allow myself to be digressive, and to be inclusive where I've been exclusive before, the art always turns out to be one of omission: skipping the transitions, figuring out what's inessential.

I don't actually commit a lot of material that I later cut. I'm good at stopping and not writing the bad parts. That's a talent I've developed. But there's enormous omission in the book, and I think that's what you and Julie are getting at. But that's also the way memory focuses, and I think it's the benefit of waiting as long as I did to write this book: the aspects that were autobiographical, the autobiographical battery at the heart of this book, that material distilled through time; inessential things were dropping away while my embrace of the essential moments was growing more and more fierce over the years.

Dave: There's an interesting exchange posted on the McSweeney's web site in which you and Dave Eggers you discuss the role of the critic. To what degree should criticism be entertainment, itself? Is a critic obliged to provide a detached, even-handed view of a book?

Lethem: It's hard to talk about the responsibilities or the ethos of critics because I think it's constantly shifting, depending where you're writing and what you're treating and the parameters you set up within the piece of criticism. You can claim certain responsibilities or abdicate them competently within a piece. What's sometimes upsetting is when someone doesn't set any context or try to reach for any parameters and just goes off. I haven't read that exchange with Dave in a long time, but I'm sure that's some of what we're thinking about: context.

Motherless Brooklyn
Songs Inspired by Literature

Back when the only Jonathan Lethem novel I'd read was As She Climbed across the Table, I heard a remarkable song called "Tell Your Story Walking" performed live by Deb Talan. Lethem's fans will surely recognize the reference – the title, and in fact the song itself, was inspired by Lionel Essrog's adventures in Motherless Brooklyn.

Not too long after that live performance, "Tell Your Story Walking" earned a place alongside recordings by Bruce Springsteen, Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann, and others on a CD called Songs Inspired by Literature. The project was organized by Artists For Literacy, an arts-based non-profit committed to addressing one of this country's most critical and least discussed problems: adults who cannot read or write. It's a worthwhile cause and a wondrous song. Check them out. Dave

Dave: After editing Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002, how would you compare criticism of music to criticism of books?

Lethem: The fundamental difference, which is a strength and like quicksand at the same time, is that criticism of other art forms is nevertheless conducted in the medium of prose. Criticism of prose is also conducted in the medium of prose, of course, so it's closer to its subject intrinsically. More often, the practitioner of one will be the practitioner of the other.

People have made great careers, Updike and others, both as literary critics and novelists or essayists. People are invited to do that, and it's potentially very rich, potentially as important and rewarding as Randall Jarrell or Edmund Wilson. But it's also treacherous. It gets people into situations where suddenly they have bad faith within their own community or their motives get mixed up. But real criticism can't be responsible to the feelings of the creators, so it's contentious in any medium. It has a margin where it's going to be dangerous and unpleasant and risky and uncomfortable. Anyone can sense when a piece is in bad faith, whether it's reviewing a book or a movie or a piece of music, and that's very different than the necessity for harsh criticism.

Dave: Elsewhere in that conversation, you get to talking about Bob Dylan and the contingent of people who really just wish he'd go away and stop recording.

Lethem: Right, the problem of people resisting the generosity of artists. That same instinct is the one that causes people to pigeonhole books. It's a safety instinct. You need to be able to think about the world clearly, so you put things in boxes. Or you need to make it stop, make it shut up. There can't really be two hundred great living novelists. That's too many. I can't read that many, so I'm not going to accept that it's possible. There's only going to be three. For my interest to thrive in the marketplace of literature, I need to believe that the stuff I'm not getting to is less interesting than the stuff I am getting to.

Dave: Somewhere I read that you once started figuring out mathematically how many books you might have time to read in the rest of your life. The idea depressed you. So how do you choose the books you read? Probably some are written by friends, but otherwise?

Lethem: I do read friends because I get curious. It becomes a social act sometimes, but I fight that; I don't want it to be obligatory and reciprocal. Nevertheless, I meet people, and I start to wonder what their work is about. But I read a lot of dead people and a lot of out-of-print stuff. I make a point of meandering off the track of the contemporary, but also off the track of the in-print and canonical.

What I want to do is reproduce the primacy of the reading act that was so precious to me when I was younger, when I was discovering my own excitement about books. Then, I had no sense of what the buzz was or what people were talking about or what was meant to be great. I began browsing my mother's bookshelves and trying to fathom those books from very early on. I migrated through books in this completely personal, instinctive, interested way. Every book I read was exactly as important to me as any other. It was a consuming curiosity, a totally private and personal relationship. That it might be Joyce or Kafka and the larger world had put them in the most stellar pantheon, or that it might be J. B. Priestley, a guy who had mostly been nudged off the shelf already by the seventies when I happened to read a lot of his stuff none of that mattered. It was always pure and vital to me. I seek that. Also, it's fun to end up the champion of a Don Carpenter or Russell Greenan or Dawn Powell, to discover that secret essence.

In a funny way, you know less about unfamous books. You don't necessarily have to read Ulysses to know its meaning in the culture because you can absorb that inferentially. So in a way, if you read Flann O'Brien instead of Joyce, you know Joyce and Flan O'Brien. You can absorb often from writers of lesser reputations the meaning of the larger ones. I try to indulge a furtiveness and a cult quality in my reading because it brings me back to the secret love.

Dave: One of my favorite pieces in the Best Music Writing collection, aside from the two from The Onion, which are hilarious, was The Strokes thread you pulled off the Internet.

Lethem: I got such a headache doing that.

Dave: A headache, how?

Lethem: I don't know how to put this. Online communities are so defiantly proud of their marginality and so ashamed of any aspiration to graduate into some other place in the culture. Very randomly, I dove into that enormous world, and I grabbed something from the very erudite, very interesting conversation that was going on. What was in my hand was very elegant, and I threw it onto the page. But the writers I happened to grab were, I think, subjected within that community to a kind of authenticity test. Are you going to let them put you in this book? Are you going to refuse or are you going to do it but hold your nose and make a big public stink that Da Capo and Lethem are corrupt and the only real discourse is our private one?

It's something I wrote about in The Fortress of Solitude when I wrote about the science fiction community. Dylan muses on its similarity to going to the South by Southwest music conference: the self-marginalizing fetish where communities will punish others but also themselves for aspiring to speak to a larger community.

Dave: Abraham pretty much insults the community that's chosen to honor him, but they like him for it. They applaud him.

Lethem: Well, he's flaying himself, first and foremost. He does insult the community, but he does it in the form of self-deprecation. They're identifying with that kind of "you can't fire me, I quit" posture. Knowing that you're making a joke of your yearning makes it something to brandish. And Abraham is very complicit: He went to the convention.

Dave: Dylan goes to Vermont for college, but soon leaves school, as you did. It's such a strange, passing moment in his life. It seems on the surface fleeting and unconnected, but it isn't.

Lethem: The book is, I think, like a series of glimpses. It's like you're walking on the beach and looking into tidal pools in a reef. There are so many fragile attempts at bohemian utopia that are damaged in various ways. The college is not so different in its own way from South by Southwest, again, or from the hippy communes on Dean Street or the ghost of racial utopia at the end of the Civil Rights era or the congregation of uptight young men who go to listen to Stan Brakhage talk and end up insulting each other because they all get defensive. It's another attempt at community. In the case of Camden College in the book, that community is damaged by money and elitism, but it still has its own beauty in the passing attempt to realize the American dream of a classless, egalitarian community.

Dave: In the book's third section, we meet Dylan as an adult. Suddenly our view of him changes dramatically.

Lethem: A lot of readers kind of hate Dylan when he comes back, when they meet him as an adult, and they don't know whether I meant them to. I sort of did. I hope then he redeems himself a little somewhat? enough? but it's kind of a shock-cut in the book.

Like anything else, it's more exciting for me when people say what they're thinking, but they can't always do that because they rightly sense that I identify with Dylan a lot. They don't feel good about not liking him when he argues with Abby and when his soul is so pinched about Mingus. They're afraid that means they don't like me.

Jonathan Lethem visited Powell's City of Books on September 23, 2003.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Men and Cartoons
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  2. The Disappointment Artist: Essays
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. Amnesia Moon Used Trade Paper $6.50
  4. Gun, with Occasional Music
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  5. As She Climbed Across the Table Used Trade Paper $7.95
  6. Da Capo Best Music Writing (2002) Used Trade Paper $7.50
  7. Girl in Landscape
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  8. Motherless Brooklyn
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  9. The Fortress of Solitude
    Used Trade Paper $5.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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