Jonathan Lethem: "My intent to skewer is practically nonexistent"

He talks to Salon about his new book "Lucky Alan," comics, fans and adoring his characters—even the difficult ones

Published March 28, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)

    (John Lucas)
(John Lucas)

I started reading Jonathan Lethem with "Amnesia Moon," maybe five or six years after it first came out. A teacher had suggested the book, after seeing me struggle with the more realist selections of the typical undergrad creative writing syllabus of the early 2000s, and almost immediately I was hooked, on both that book and Lethem’s writing in general. "Amnesia Moon" is an intoxicating but very strange novel — perhaps Lethem’s strangest, at least for me — and so I was surprised, in 2003, to find myself reading "The Fortress of Solitude," with its much more grounded period setting beginning in 1970s Brooklyn.

I would soon immerse myself in the rest of Lethem’s books, and this range became one of the most exciting aspects of reading his novels and stories and essays: His interests are broad, his obsessions deep and his influences both announced and fully explored, engaged, built upon. If Lethem has topics or time periods or genres he returns to frequently, it feels to me less like a tic or a limitation and more like an indication that something is not yet finished, that his unshed obsessions return often to further provoke his imagination into new stories.

Jonathan Lethem’s "Lucky Alan" is his first short story collection since 2004’s "Men and Cartoons," collecting the stories written in the decade that followed. In the years between, he’s published three novels, including 2013’s "Dissident Gardens," and a slew of other projects in other genres, including penning a reboot of the comic book "Omega the Unknown"; collecting two books of essays, including "The Ecstasy of Influence," titled after his provocative Harper’s essay of the same name; editing a volume of selections of Philip K. Dick’s journals; and another nonfiction book on The Talking Heads album "Fear of Music" for the popular 33 1/3 series. Our conversation with Lethem discusses how stories in "Lucky Alan" were written, as well as what changed (and what stayed the same) throughout this busy and productive decade.

Once I was a few stories into "Lucky Alan," I started thinking about the book's ordering, wondering if you'd consciously decided to start with two of the more realist stories — the title story and "The King of Sentences" — before moving on to stranger fare, like "Traveler Home," where the protagonist is given a baby by a pack of wolves, or "Procedure in Plain Air," with its surreal "installation" involving a man left in a hole outside a coffee shop, "an inverted phone booth of dirt and rubble." But then a friend mentioned seeing you read "Procedure in Plain Air" at Skylight Books in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, where he reported that you’d said the stories appear here in the order they were written.

That answers one question but begs another: How do you chart the progress of your interests in the short story over that time? Does “Pending Vegan,” the last story, complete some line of artistic thought that began with the first, “Lucky Alan,” or is the book simply a method of collecting all the short work of a certain period in one place?

I’ve got at least 12 answers to this question, depending on whether I grab it by trunk or tail or some other appendage. Somewhere I once read a pragmatic assertion that the way to order a story collection is to put the best story first and the second-best last and the rest anywhere you like. I do think “Lucky Alan” and “Pending Vegan” are the two most satisfying and complete stories I’ve written, or at least that were uncollected. When I threw them into those positions, just to see what that looked like, I noticed immediately that one was the earliest piece in the book, and the other the most recent. Putting them in chronological sequence made for a quick solution to what probably wasn’t an important question in the first place: Does anybody typically read a story collection from beginning to end? (Of course many would say I could quit that rhetorical question sooner: Does anybody typically read a story collection?)

Of course, I may have forgotten or been mistaken or be lying about the order of writing of some of the stories between those two. I jiggered the sequence at some point to make for what I thought would be a better alternation of the “more realist” with the “stranger fare” — though we might differ on what’s strange. In the experience of their maker, “The King of Sentences,” for instance, is stranger than “Procedure in Plain Air.” The first is an unrepeatable language pratfall, the second a pretty methodological fiction, putting two incommensurate things together and playing out the result. That one feels traditional to me. But that’s just the experience of the maker.

To answer your last question, both. What’s great about short stories is the opportunity to play at reinvention; all those new departures, all those new landings to try to stick. It makes me happy to think of the book as a window into the last decade’s worth of tiny revolutions and self-overthrowings, and as a laboratory for what I might still become as a writer. For instance “Lucky Alan” was the last thing I wrote before starting "Chronic City," and it looks to me like I was testing my confidence for that milieu and tone. What if “Pending Vegan” will tell me as much about what I’m capable of, looking back later?

On the other hand, hey, I’m 50. This is the third time I’ve gathered a decade’s stories. Let’s be clear about how much such introspection matters to the reader who’s either aboard or not aboard my “project” by now: likely, not bloody much. Somerset Maugham once adopted the title of a next collection of his stories from a weary reviewer’s description of his previous one: "The Mixture as Before." The secret title of this book is "The Mixture as Before."

The idea of stories as a laboratory for what might come next feels true to me too: I can go back and look at my first book of stories and see proto-versions of elements I’d use later in longer work, as well as kinds of fiction I’ve never returned to. A reviewer once wrote that she wished my first novel was more like a certain story in my first book, and I remember thinking: Give me time to get to that novel — I’d like to write it too! It takes so much longer to change at the novel scale, compared to how fast you might reinvent yourself as a story writer. Are there stories of your that haunt you in this way, styles or subjects you haven’t had the chance to scale up?

The relationship between the two forms is permanently charged and strange — it seems simple, but it’s not. They seem so obviously related, they’re typically done by the same writers, and yet there’s a kind of abyss between them. There’s a lot you can do in short fiction that you can’t in a novel, and the reverse is true as well, and yet as you say they can be testing grounds. I never mistake an idea or a plan or character from one form for the other; they seem absolutely clear to me when they declare themselves. I’ve published chapters from books as short stories, but it always feels like a trick. The characters know they live in a larger space, and so they keep glancing out of the frame. So, I wouldn’t think of it in terms of “scaling up,” no.

Yet faced with your question, I feel a fundamental and terrifying recognition. I’m haunted, yes, all the time, and increasingly, by the kinds of writer I’ll never get to turn out to have been. I’ve been digging in my own buried archives recently and discovered bunches of notebooks with jottings for stories and novels I never got around to writing (as well as jottings indicating some of those I did — I was amazed to find that I’d basically already conceived the intention to write The "Fortress of Solitude," my sixth novel, when I was 19). Crime novels, autobiographical novels about parts of my life untouched by the autobiographical novels I’ve actually managed, surrealist stories, plays even! Every one of those notes feels alive to me, waiting to be picked up and realized. Probably none of them ever will be.

When I’m writing short stories I feel closer to this laboratory-self, the kid with all those notebooks so sure he’d get to be all those different kinds of writer. Simply because the situation of story-writing — brisk, fleeting, beginning-middle-end accomplished in a few weeks — encourages the crazy optimism, the sensation of being modular and capable of anything. When I’m writing a novel, which is most of the time, I’m simply inside the project, managing its potentialities and necessities, living with its people, for a period of years. There is no outside, then. Each novel I write feels like my last, not for some morbid feeling that I’ll quit or die after I write “the end,” but simply because I lose sight of the imaginative zone beyond its horizon. To write a novel is to be merely (and fulfillingly) the writer of that novel. The task of trying to answer that novel’s requirements is more than enough.

To loop back to an earlier answer: Is there a freedom that comes with this point in the career, where "The Mixture as Before" feels like an honest way to title a book? Does knowing that many readers already know whether they’re into your “project” or not free you to do work you might not otherwise have done? I think that sounds a little like I’m trying to trap you into saying that caring too much about what people thought restrained you in the past, but I’m really wondering if there’s a point in the career where your relationship with the bulk of your readers stabilizes and becomes something new and perhaps better than what came before.

To the extent that I can detect “my relationship with my readers,” it never stabilizes, thank god. I don’t think “Readers,” despite the illusion created by the Amazon or Goodreads star-systems, stabilize into some monolithic and lucid voice that you can listen to. Instead, when I come out of my house — I do, sometimes — I’ll meet people who’ve declared one or another of my books to be their favorite; after reminding myself how lucky it is that I’m read at all, I add a second blessing that each of my willful and divergent artifacts seems to find some individual constituency. Of course this has to do with the different purposes readers bring to things, to their age, leaning, what they had for dinner, and so forth. When I meet one of the "Girl in Landscape" people I’m extra happy. I like the books better as they age out of their initial publicity, which is a kind of fever or toxic shock that the book is temporarily ill with, and instead become part of the backdrop of what’s out there, the literary environment. It usually happens four or five years after publication.

Needless to say, if I’d been super-obedient to broadband expectations beaming my way (more from journalists than from readers — and not, I’d emphasize, from my editors) I’d have written loads of books about weird private detectives and/or 1970s Brooklyn. It might have been simpler, except I couldn’t. I don’t say that in a bragging-about-my-perversity sort of way. I say it in a confessing-an-incapacity sort of way. I just… couldn’t have.

I've been a big fan of "The King of Sentences" since it first appeared in The New Yorker, and rereading it I was stuck between shaking my head at the absurd fandom of the two protagonists, while also knowing that whatever shames them is something I shared. I've also thought the two young writers were the primary target of the story's satire, but now I wonder if it's not the King of Sentences that bears the brunt of the story's blow. After all, your own fandom for writers and musicians and comics is such an integral part of the way you've charted your development as a writer and a person that it seems somewhat hard for me to believe you're really being too harsh on the two writers here, caught in the "time when all [they] could talk about was sentences, sentences." Was there a specific writer or literary movement you were intent on skewering here, either with the young writers or the King? Is there, as it seems to me, just as much celebration here as there is takedown?

There’s definitely no specific writer or literary movement I was intent on skewering. In fact, my intent to skewer is practically nonexistent. If I could make just one general statement here it would be that I am almost always already never skewering anything when I set out to write. One of the sad-strangest things I experience is when I’m taken for skewering characters I adore and cherish, identify with, and am abiding with out of fascination and yearning.

The kids in that story obviously come from a kind of appalled and delighted fascination with my own aspirant self. Shelley Jackson and I, when we were still bookstore clerks, once read a Don DeLillo book aloud to each other, slowly over weeks. So there’s a grain there, blown into a kind of balloon and sent sailing. At the same time, I’m hugely identified with that poor old grouse who just wants to be left alone to do his work, concealed from view, unconfronted with his limitations, forgiven his trespasses. Each day that passes puts me nearer to the title character in the story, not for my achievement in sentences, which is not for me to judge, but for my hermetic reluctance, and my distrust of people with excessively smooth skin. So: I locate my “self” between the two poles in the story — the kids, the King. I pray I’ll always float somewhere in the space between them, able to make contact with both.

I’m really glad to hear you say that you almost never set out to skewer anyone: I think that’s something I’ve always appreciated about your work — there’s a great affection for your characters in everything I’ve read of yours, even when characters are wrong or misguided or perhaps — in another writer’s hands — easy to scorn. I reread “The Vision” from "Men and Cartoons" while I was waiting for "Lucky Alan" to arrive, and I appreciated again how the narrator’s attempts to look down on the adult incarnation of “the kid known as the Vision” is thwarted in various ways as the story unfolds. The story sets the reader up to judge this character harshly but then doesn’t give the reader the tools to actually do so — and if this frustrates the reader then that feeling comes from their expectations, not from a flaw in the story. I felt something similar in "Lucky Alan"’s “The Porn Critic,” which has characters that could be satirized but aren’t, thanks to the many places where you reveal their contradictions and complexity instead of stopping at their surface situations. You mentioned above the “grain” that became “The King of Sentences,” which was “blown into a balloon and sent sailing”: How much of that starting place needs to contain that adoration you mention feeling for your characters? Or is that something you discover as you’re writing, looking for something in a character to make you, and presumably the reader, care more fully about them?

Well, it isn’t as though I need some admonitory thought, going in: “I’d better be careful to adore these characters, because otherwise I’m likely to unleash a can of skewering on their poor asses!” I write about things I care for, without any sense of a desirable or attainable alternative. I set out to create and explore people and situations I feel tenderly and wonderingly about. And I don’t find it a terrific shock to discover “contradictions and complexity” in humans — it’s the baseline condition, right? In “The Porn Critic,” I’m in complete sympathy with the two characters who end up together at the end — which isn’t to say that they’re happy or feel clear about their lives. Nor that they’re admirable or upstanding according to the standards of our culture. Which can be pretty Victorian, though it likes to tell itself it’s oh-so-jaded and corrupt. I mean, plenty of people I care about look at porn, and even sell or create it, or have done. You too? I thought so.

That story concludes — I’m spoiling it, but why not? — that in behaviors condemned as perverse and decadent, there’s frequently a glorious innocence in how the behavers experience themselves. And, typically, a kindness, solicitude and gentleness to their manner. Fetishists, swingers, et cetera are, in my view, usually idealists, especially compared to the righteous Puritans who condemn them. They dare to believe that humans actually deserve happiness and fulfillment. Not just some theoretical persons in some distantly attainable Utopia, but these ones right here. Themselves, even!

At the same time, of course, I tend to write about disappointment a lot. And loss. So, if I’m duty bound to test my tender idealists against what I believe, against every wish, the world is likely to inflict upon them and reveal to them -- disappointment, loss, their own complexity and contradiction, the depredations of late capitalism (that soggy cardboard box we can’t seem to punch our way out of), the yawning abyss of endless night that is our fate — why on earth would I trouble to skewer them for being who they happen to be? They’ve got enough to contend with. We all do.

“The Vision” — that’s a first-person story, and the trick is that the narrator’s uptight. He’s punitive and judgemental, in an ethical range that’s meant to be comically picayune; he’s still nurturing minor triumphs and defeats from 5th grade. In that memory-arena he can win, so as not to notice he’s losing in the here and now. His injuries are his armor, and the story means to strip even those defenses from him by the end. This gesture, of introducing distance between the reader and the high ground implicit in first-person narration, is meant to induce discomfort, sure. It’s a regular gesture for me. You find it in “Super Goat Man” and in "Chronic City," and the second half of "The Fortress of Solitude." Morally unreliable narration. I tend to write against my narrators, but not out of dislike. Again, I’d introduce this term: testing. I write about what I love, wish for, idealize and aspire to, and then I test it, compulsively, and with remorse, against what I fear is coming to get it: the universe. Every humiliation and humbling. There are no villains in that story, no one left to skewer, because we all fail the tests.

Another favorite from "Lucky Alan" was "Their Back Pages," which begins as a sort of Gilligan's Island of Misfit Toys situation, where characters from a variety of different comics end up stranded together on an island, without hope of rescue. Obviously, superhero comics have long been a part of your work, but in "Their Back Pages," you're not only alluding to the comics the characters spring from, but you're also invoking the layout of the comics themselves, beginning the story by describing the panels on the first page of the issue depicting the plane crash that set up the story's situation. I'm curious how you went about translating the opportunities the comic form gives a storyteller into the short story — and I'm wondering if there was anything from comics that you wanted to get into that story that you weren't able to figure out how to incorporate.

This question made me realize I couldn’t remember a thing about that story except that I was proud to have written it. I went back and read it so I could try to account for myself. I still don’t actually recall writing it, or what plan I had going in, but looking at it now, it makes me think of the strangely encrypted and centrifugal relationship one tends to have with ancient “canonical” pop culture. Take a figure like “Nancy” (of "Nancy and Sluggo"). If you’re me, you got to know Nancy through third-generation Nancy comic books, not the original strips. You also encountered her in avant-garde appropriations by Joe Brainard and Art Spiegelman, and in scholarly references in Comics Journal and Donald Phelps’ essays. If you found Nancy in an old newspaper, it was yellowed ephemera, or some upscale reprint book. The “core” Nancy was something you had to almost burrow in to find, an archival procedure. I guess I wrote that story after I’d written my one superhero comic, "Omega the Unknown" — it seems to show signs of a slight interest in the oddness of the “script” that’s left over after a writer has turned it over to the artist. A piece of writing meant for nobody to read, consisting of labored descriptions of what someone is meant to draw. But the story doesn’t really seem to be about that. It looks to be about the Internet and scholarship and all these strange lenses and devices that shroud our apprehension of the very simple originals: Nancy, Popeye, Krazy Kat, etc. And other more minor characters, mostly forgotten. I began to see these characters as very lonely — they live only for direct relationships with their readers, on an immediate, day-to-day basis that’s both totally disposable and completely alive. Instead, they’re stranded in time, growing reflective, forced to write in journals. Of course, the island turned it into "Gilligan," "Lost" and "Survivor."

Or, quite possibly, I was just fooling around. If so, I hereby confess. And that means that the above speculations are just fooling around now about the fooling around I did before.

That’s always one of the oddest parts of doing these kinds of interviews for new books: The book is new for everyone but its author, who is usually already down the road on the next project, growing less familiar with the just-released book by the day. And that feeling is probably increased with this kind of decade-spanning collection. But that doesn’t mean this kind of speculation about your motives isn’t interesting, and I like your reading of “The Back Pages”: Your take on a reader’s experience of the “core” Nancy feels very true to me not just of comics, but of most art.

Long before you published "The Ecstasy of Influence,” I already admired your willingness to name and share your influences, in interviews and essays and by direct allusion embedded in your novels and stories. What were some of the most notable influences on the stories in "Lucky Alan"? Do you find that your oldest influences retain their same magic, or is a process of trying to constantly renew yourself with new works of similar power?

All of the talking I’ve done about it, over the years, risks making the process itself seem programmatic, or even predominantly directed and conscious. In fact, whatever lucidity I’ve shed on the situation is strictly after the fact. My actual experience of being influenced is mysterious, irregular, glimpsed in peripheral vision, and frequently surprising. One of the finest surprises is the kind your question suggests: the renewal of old source code. The recent instance was Philip K. Dick coming back so strongly into "Chronic City"; thrilling, but I couldn’t have expected it. The last time I’d been so engaged with him as an influence I hadn’t read Saul Bellow or Henry James — now he was in dialogue with those unlikely elements, and in a New York setting, with a post-9/11 subject. You couldn’t plan such a confluence if you tried. I hadn’t. I just mused aloud on it, after the fact.

I’d like to end with a turn toward the personal: When you were 15, you worked at Michael Seidenberg's Brazenhead Books in Brooklyn, which is now a "secret" bookstore housed in a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. (I had a chance to visit the store two summers ago, and was lucky to get to hear a few stories about your days working in its original location.) That wasn't your only stint behind the counter of a bookstore, and more recently — during the time period you were writing "Lucky Alan" — you also co-founded Red Gap Used Books, in Blue Hill, Maine. Obviously, that first experience had a powerful effect on you that's lasted you throughout your life. What do today's most successful bookstores have in common with the ones where you spent your early years as a writer?

I think I’ve worked at eight or ten different used bookshops, depending on how you count some of them. Obviously most of that count was racked up as a teenager, when I serially apprenticed myself at the dusty, hole-in-the-wall bookshops New York was still strewn with, in the late ’70s and early ’80s: Avery Books and Clinton Street Books, both in Brooklyn; Gryphon on Broadway. That one of those happened to be Michael Seidenberg’s first incarnation of Brazen Head was a kind of dumb luck no aspiring teenage writer could know to hope for. My brain is still shaped like the long list of books Michael told me to read, and which I took home instead of pay. I’m glad he’s still bending minds, and that you’ve had a chance to visit him. It’s pretty much impossible, though, for me to try to make the comparison you’ve requested, to “today’s most successful bookstores,” since one of the baseline requirements of the moldy utopia I grew up inside was the total non-success of the bookstores, and the atmosphere of disgruntled undersnobbery that we cultivated in them. If you won’t come into the shop and read the books we’ll read them ourselves, damn it! Though I depend on stores selling new books, now, and even adore a few of them, for being so friendly and indomitable — Greenlight and Skylight, you keep away the darkness! — BookCourt and Book Soup, you’re so judicious and so nourishing! — the atmosphere in which I came of age had nothing to do with “new books.” Because of the feral hippie aspect of my upbringing, I’m not certain I knew what a new book was until after I left college.

Red Gap, the shop in Maine, really belongs to my friends, the philosopher Andre Strong and the novelist Marjorie Kernan. They’re terrific booksellers in the nearly invisible rare book market that still exists; that’s to say that whatever’s viable in their business model depends now largely on the Internet. The shop, therefore, is a clubhouse, an incarnation of moldy utopia which they may keep going as much to humor me as anything else. In the summer, when I get a chance, I alphabetize, cull, wrap dust jackets in Mylar, and sometimes when someone dies and there’s an estate sale I’ll go into an old barn with them and try to ferret some antiquarian gold from the ruins. It’s a great chance for me to get out of my head and rejoin my guild. It also justifies my continuing to over-buy books wherever I go — I can claim to myself that it’s “for the shop.” Eventually I do siphon stuff from my own overflowing shelves onto Red Gap’s, though sometimes I price it too high, just to be certain it’ll still be there when I come back.

By Matt Bell

Matt Bell is the author of the novels "In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods," a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award, and "Scrapper," which will be published by Soho Press in September 2015. He teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Arizona State University.


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