Monday, September 6, 2010

Citizen on patrol: A conversation with Jonathan Lethem about work, groups, genre, the movies, and the enduring power of Dick

A subterranean monster-tiger wreaks destruction upon New York below a chocolate-scented cloud that emits ear-piercing drones heard only by select citizens. Somewhere within the city’s labyrinthine clusters of living space, mystically glowing vases attract stupendous bids on eBay. The socio-geographical canvas of Jonathan Lethem’s
Chronic City (Vintage, $17.95) is teeming with the fantastic and the hilariously banal. The novel chronicles the friendship of Chase Insteadman and Perkus Tooth, the former a grown-up child star now semi-famous for being the fiancé of Janice Trumbull, an astronaut trapped indefinitely in the International Space Station, the latter a dandyish, borderline recluse, and cult-legend arts critic with a fondness for burgers, weed, and Marlon Brando. The pleasures of Lethem’s latest are derived from its relentless invention, sense of place, masterful banter, micro-hierarchies, deliciously absurd dinners with pajama-clad millionaires, and luxurious descriptions of characters that are only intermittently realistic yet nearly always suffused with truth and insight. I spoke with Lethem last November in Toronto, lost my record of our conversation, then found it again, just in time for Chronic City’s trade paperback release.

JB: Several critics have noted the unusual blend of density of incident and paucity of classical narrative structure in
Chronic City. Were you conscious of nurturing this sort of busy looseness?

Jonathan Lethem: That’s a great term for it. I think of this book as having an extremely somber, morbid background, almost like a giant Hieronymus Bosch mural of New York City in the 21st century, specifically of Manhattan between 9/11 and the financial collapse. In the foreground, it’s really an antic tangle of characters and their day-to-day hanging out. It’s behaviour. It’s not a plot in a classical sense. It’s almost more like a season of
Seinfeld. One stupid day spent with this bunch of people after the next. Their self-absorption is thematically linked to the things that are wrong with the city I’m writing about.

JB: It has a fluidity that’s dictated by the ensemble. In a sense it reminds me of certain Robert Altman films.

JL: That’s good! I like that too. That makes sense.

JB: In your last book of stories, as well as in
You Don’t Love Me Yet and Chronic City, I’ve been enjoying your sensitivity to social hierarchies and group dynamics, how different personalities negotiate their place in a rock band, a dinner party or some impromptu assembly of previously compartmentalized friends.

JL: I’m very interested in people forming groups, both useful and useless ones. I’m interested in the structures we arrange for ourselves, what we can take from them and how they can become hiding places or worlds unto themselves.

JB: It occurred to me that for all the more identifiably science-fiction genre work you’ve written,
Chronic City seems the most directly indebted to Philip K. Dick. I was recently reading A Maze of Death and Ubik and it occurred to me that Dick’s work is also often deeply concerned with group dynamics.

JL: Absolutely.
Chronic City definitely marks a return for me. Having re-read so many of Dick’s books to put together those Library of America volumes, I renewed what is a very permanent influence, a very permanent engagement for me. I got down to the root level with it again and thought, I can use this stuff, I can make more of this again. Because I’d become a very different writer from when I first set out and was very consciously influenced by Dick. I can transmute these materials in a new way because of things I’ve since learned to do and the way I’ve learned to write about New York City. So I was very aware of bringing him into this one.

JB: Has being a father changed your writing?

JL: Probably. It’s been very good on a mechanical level. It meant that I found an office outside of my house and work on a computer with no internet. So instead of indulging myself in sort of always writing and never writing, working throughout the day in this very princely way, now I go and I’m a worker. I get my job done for a few hours and then I go on to other responsibilities. I like the result of that. The deeper, thematic effects of fatherhood will likely emerge only very slowly. I’m not a journalist on ay level. I’m very slow to reflect parts of my life in my work. It took me 20 years to write about my childhood in Brooklyn.

JB: Do you always find a place for some version of yourself in your books?

JL: I feel I’m everywhere. Even before I was writing in any way autobiographically, I could see that I was turning aspects of myself into various characters. If they live at all it’s because I’ve smuggled something of myself into them. It sounds very solipsistic. The book itself is a virtual hall of mirrors. But it’s also my enthusiasms, my responses, my friends, characters from other people’s books, all of these things.

JB: I suppose writing about art is a way of giving your characters life. I’m thinking of
Fortress of Solitude and the sheer number of artists or art enthusiasts in that book.

JL: In that book especially art is a mediating way to dwell on the world. The graffiti artists, the musicians, the science-fiction convention, all of these are different ways that people try to thrive in a difficult universe through the avenue of culture. Even criticism, even Dylan Edbus’ writing about music, is an attempt to build some kind of meaningful place for himself.

Chronic City starts in the offices of the Criterion Collection and features numerous digressions into film culture. You’re obviously a film nut. Have you never entertained the notion of writing for the screen, or even directing?

JL: When I was a kid I wanted to be a director very much, but to do that would be rival commitment to the one I’ve made to writing fiction. I don’t think screenwriting is where the action is. If I cared to make film I’d have to direct it. So I’ve just decided to just enjoy this adjacent relationship where I write books that are very responsive to film and in turn tend to attract filmmakers and get me into all sorts of interesting, sticky bystander situations. That’s just enough to give me the fun of dabbling in that world without the totally intimidating prospect of actually originating something myself. I watch filmmakers. My wife is a filmmaker. It’s not an art to be a dabbler or dilettante in. It’s enormous.

JB: Are there things you’d like to convey without words?

JL: I do think about that. I was a painter for a long time, and even in a very wordy book like
Chronic City I’m interested in issues of inexpressibility, conundrums that defy language. But I’m pretty well situated where I am. I get to do a lot of what I want to do.

JB: To speak more generally of the culture-obsessive quality of your books, do you ever think about how this aspect of your work will speak to future generations? I’ve often recommended
Fortress of Solitude, but I’ve recommended it most often to people who share some of my own interests in the art, films and music referred to in the text. Do you envision a day when new editions of Fortress of Solitude will require copious footnotes?

JL: God bless that possibility. That would be cool if it rated those footnotes. People always want me to be concerned about this issue, and I sometimes try to be, but when you read Dickens you’re in Dickens’ London, with every immensity of detail, the street names, the commercial jingles that were in the air, the snippets of folk culture dialect and jokes. When you encounter Saul Bellow you’re immersed in his mid-century Chicago, and for better or worse you just have to embrace it. And you do because it’s all emotionally charged for him. I just try to meet that standard. I try to make everything matter on the terms of the book. I try not to let anything be too indulgent and extraneous. If you’re going to write about culture you have to accept that you have one.

JB: Do you read as much as you used to?

JL: Never as much as I did. When I was a teenager and through my 20s I was an insanely voracious reader. I miss that, but I could never reproduce those conditions. Forget having a family, once I really got my habit of writing going, that occupies too much of the same mental space, and even physical space, the sitting still, using your eyes. So I couldn’t read the way I used to, but I try to read a lot.

JB: Do you still have relevatory experiences reading?

JL: Yes. Again, they couldn’t come as rapidly as when one week I was discovering Kafka and the next I was discovering Stanislaw Lem and the next Shirley Jackson. I was moving through worlds so rapidly. There are fewer earth-shattering experiences, but when it happens the earth still shatters. Reading Roberto Bolaño the last couple of years did that for me.

JB: Do you read while deep into work?

JL: Yeah, I always do. There’s nothing that I’m trying to protect from influence. It’s great if I get excited about something while working. It reminds me of what it’s for.

JB: I was recently speaking with Paul Auster and was struck by his claim to not read anything, at least not fiction, while he’s working.

JL: He gets more novels written than I do, so perhaps there’s something to be said for that. [Laughs]

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