Jonathan Lethem: Look at this! What is it?
In Sunday’s Arts & Books, Carolyn Kellogg talks to writer Jonathan Lethem about his move to Southern California. Lethem, known for his novels set in New York City -- "Motherless Brooklyn," "Fortress of Solitude," "Chronic City" -- has taken the position of Disney professor in creative writing at Pomona College. Here is some more of the conversation.
Jonathan Lethem: The work I'm doing right this minute is trying to nail down this big crazy collection called "The Ecstasy of Influence."
Carolyn Kellogg: Like the Harper's piece?
JL: The Harper's piece is in it, and gives it the name. This is like me trying to do the equivalent -- which can't be done of course, it's a total non sequitur to make this comparison -- but I'm trying to do a Lethem equivalent of Norman Mailer's "Advertisements for Myself." Where I just like am gathering up all the stuff that I did that isn't novel writing and saying, "Look at this! I'm doing all this stuff! What is it?"
It goes back to the very beginning of my writing -– it has fiction and nonfiction, and even a poem, and then lots of new interstitial material. Some of it provocative, bragging, self-flagellating -- this is going to be a very messy collection of stuff.
It's sort of confessions of a self-conscious writer. Some people, by definition, are affronted by that. There's this sort of need for artists of all kinds to be like magical creatures who can't account for their activities but just disgorge these beautiful objects.
CK: Writer as unicorn.
JL: I've already gone out on all sorts of limbs, I realize, in opposition to that. Just the degree to which I've been willing to account for my activities, in interviews, like the one commencing right here. It sounds like a passive choice, but it accumulates over the years into a tremendous amount of explaining. I've been tending to acknowledge that I'm a) curious and b) sometimes rather well-informed about my own activities, instead of completely in the dark about them.
This book is the full-on embrace, as in the embrace of someone standing on a highway and embracing a Mack truck, of the realization that I am fatally self-conscious, and that will have to be accounted for.
JL: I've only probably reviewed seven or eight novels. It's really problematic. I'm gregarious with writers; I like novelists. I don't want my sympathies to cause me to write a review that's in any kind of bad faith, nor do I want to destroy some pleasant, even if it's slight, collegial feeling. I try to review the dead guy -- Bolaño -- or the biography of the dead guy, because I like being in the conversation. Sometimes I look at what Updike did at the New Yorker. I don't know if many people have the temperament, let alone the incredible set of skills he brought to that, the versatility, the endless curiosity, to identify with so many different kinds of novelists who were not doing what he does.
CK: I think there are few novelists who also engage in the practice of critique and cultural engagement.
JL: One part of me has always felt -- this is relevant to the whole teaching thing too -- there was something unbelievably wrong about turning to novelists for authority about anything other than this weird concoction of their own interests and obsessions and curiosities and solipsistic fascination with stuff they make up themselves.
When I sat alone in my little hovel in Berkeley, cooking up "Gun With Occasional Music" and "Amnesia Moon," I just wanted to write crazy books. I didn't want to be consulted as an authority, or put in a classroom in front of hungry young minds.
It's a strange process -- a dialog between the solitary act of writing and the accompanying image of the romantic individualist, promethean figure. And what I feel is the humble, communal, kind of vaguely pinko truth coming out of this conversation, communion with other thoughts and people and enthusiasms. Teaching, or doing something else that mediates the solitude -- going on book tour, even -- becomes, at its best moments, turning the experience inside out. And reversing the polarity briefly, communing with other minds on the spot before I retreat back to the hovel.
CK: How about the one-to-one experience of being a reader -- reading as opposed to other kinds of cultural consumption, like listening to records or watching films -- from the reading side? As a reader, how does that experience stand apart?
JL: You can go into a screening of a Kubrick film, and you're a passive recipient of a dictated experience that unfolds with the authority of Kubrick's tempo: You don't turn back pages (we'll put DVD viewing aside). And you're in a room full of people who are having the same dream at exactly the same moment that you're having it. You could have a whole subway car full of people with Franzen's "Freedom" open on their laps -- and probably right now, the F train looks a lot like that -- but they're not all on the same page. They're in this transmission between their brain and Franzen's.
People are really eager -- and I don't blame them -- often to say about a novel, I believe in the world you created. And it was all done with this weird thing called the sentence. Which is not a person, but is instead a catalyst for you to think about real things. [A book] is just this mad pile of sentences that I stacked up for your experiencing pleasure.
[Acknowledging that] annoys a lot of people, or they think that it means you're voting against emotion, character and empathy -- all the deep, rich, turgid experiences that a novel can evoke in you, that you've pointed to it as a construction made of language. I'm not saying one disqualifies the other -- I'm saying it's interesting that they coexist!
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Jonathan Lethem in his office at Pomona College. Credit: Gary Friedman