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What’s it like for an author so closely associated with Brooklyn to teach writing on the West Coast? A bibliocentric chat with Jonathan Lethem
Conversing with the writer Jonathan Lethem is like playing Ping-Pong with Serena Williams. Even if it isn’t exactly his day job, he’s surely good enough to wipe the floor with you if he feels like it. Lethem (with a long e, as in “Lethal Lethem,” his high school nickname) has already notched a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” a National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel Motherless Brooklyn, and a plum tenured gig teaching writing and contemporary fiction at Pomona College, filling the void created when David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. The terrific early word on his new, artfully selected nonfiction collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, proves justified. Lethem, who is 47, has also become a model literary citizen, parlaying an early career scouting underpriced first editions into a healthy sideline championing such underrated writers as Walter Tevis (The Hustler), Thomas Berger (Little Big Man), Paula Fox (Poor George), and science-fiction visionary Philip K. Dick—whose best-selling Library of America editions and this fall’s posthumous Exegesis Lethem shepherded into print. I recently welcomed Le-them to Libros Schmibros, the Boyle Heights lending library/used bookshop I founded last year, to jaw about Raymond Chandler, how literary canons change, how neighborhoods evolve, and what a nice kid from Brooklyn is doing in Claremont.
In 2007, you published a novel called You Don’t Love Me Yet that’s set in the Silver Lake music scene, which I gather you researched partly over a two-month visit and partly by reading a lot of Jonathan Gold. Is there anything you would change about that book now that you’re actually living in Southern California?
I really want to be slow to authorize myself to have important things to say about L.A. Your photographer just said, “How do you like it here?” and I said, “I love it here, but I’m not here.” My wife and I drove to the coast for a friend’s cocktail party the other night. Got a baby-sitter, got dressed up in Claremont, got in the car. The joke is that this is like living where we used to live in Brooklyn and accepting an invitation in Philadelphia. My wife and I had plenty of time to talk while we were in the car. It’s a very different transition from getting on the subway or in a taxicab. Here you go into your cocoon. You get to listen to the radio. Music always sounds best in the car.
Do you think you could ever write about Southern California from the inside?
I used to be a California writer in some sort of technical sense. When my first two novels were published, I still lived in the Bay Area, and they were both set, in their way, in California. But I didn’t have the capacity to write, or for that matter to think, about place in the way I first blundered into—and then cultivated—when I moved back into the borough and became a kind of self-anthropologist in my relationship to Brooklyn. For at least that one six-square-block quadrant, I really went all the way. Whether I could ever extend that very far to another urban zone, I have no idea.
Do you think New York and San Francisco understand or misunderstand Los Angeles in different ways?
It’s not really a matter of misunderstanding. There’s just a preemptive resistance that does not even want to understand.
Here in Boyle Heights we’re in the thick of something that has been taken—or mistaken—for, heaven help us, the next Silver Lake. Are there lessons to be learned from the gentrification of your native Brooklyn about how to turn a place into something better without turning it into someplace else?
The problem with the concept of gentrification is that the map is not the territory. The idea that a lot of invasive real estate people use a wedge of superficial hipsters, who would be willing to live anywhere, to destroy a deeply indigenous neighborhood with roots in one monolithic authenticity is a lie at 12 different levels. The impoverished artists who are seen as the dupes of real estate interests are themselves human beings who want homes. It’s not done cynically except in retrospect. There are ironic losers in every sort of gentrification because it all happens with so much more fitful slowness than anyone thinks. It all happens on some sort of 30- instead of a three-year timetable. The whole thing doesn’t make sense as a story. I grew up in an antigentrification family. My parents lived in a way that I’m still moved to describe. They forged bonds with their immediate neighbors. My father helped open a youth center, and we had a jail in the neighborhood where my father taught art to the prisoners. Either you make large movements, political movements, that protect the poor from dispossession and the encroachments of monolithic capitalism, or you don’t bother to have any sympathy for them at all. Gentrification, or its opposite, are chimeras. [Pause.] That was a big lecture.
Speaking of good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, let’s talk about the literary canon. What’s it been like working on those beautiful black reissues of Philip K. Dick from the Library of America?
When you say that, it sounds like I’m approaching a very large building in D.C., about to argue a case before the Supreme Court for the first time. Will this bumpkin survive? What it really means is that a marvelous writer, Geoffrey O’Brien, is running the program when he calls me up and says, “Let’s have lunch, we’re kind of weak in certain areas, and I want to pick your brain.” And he and I hit it off, and I say, “Wait, you mean you’ve never read Philip K. Dick? You’ve got to go back and try again.” By the end of the lunch, I’m the editor.
Is it true that the initial reissue was Library of America’s all-time best-seller?
Not cumulatively, but it was the fastest-selling book in their repertoire. It made doing a subsequent two volumes of Dick’s work a cinch. It was incredibly fulfilling, and now I’m enmeshed in putting together his folly-slash-masterpiece Exegesis in a single, almost 1,000-page volume. Despite the out-of-print status and trashy covers, this is a major American writer. I’m like the guy who bought Apple stock in 1975.
And you had first editions of all the books...
Yes, it was all a piece of calculation on behalf of my holdings—I fixed the market!
Library of America included the script for Double Indemnity in one of two Chandler volumes. Do any other screenwriters deserving of canonization come to mind?
The first screenwriter I would nominate for Library of America is Preston Sturges. I think his screenplays read like masterpieces. It’s one sensibility. His voice is there. That would probably be my first pick. You?
Maybe Dalton Trumbo first—especially with the letters that were collected as Additional Dialogue. Incidentally, because your m.o. has been to throw the reader a curve every time out, does it get you down when you’re pigeonholed as, say, “that postmodern guy”?
Lots of writers have labored to get out from under labels. You never get completely free. William Gibson is cyberpunk forever, no matter what he does. Even Chandler is still kind of a “mystery writer.” “Crime writer” is a little better.
There went my lede: “Jonathan Lethem puts the pomo in Pomona.” So why is The Long Goodbye your favorite Chandler novel?
It’s a novel of character. By this time, Chandler has settled into his aphoristic brilliance, and he lets the language go all the way to the heart of emotion in the narrative voice. He lets himself linger over the city. He has given himself permission to be less concise, and he just has so much to say about male friendship and betrayal. It is right at the crossroads of the same thing that makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby seem so profoundly American, where the promise of American freedom is meeting its limits, both in the nature of the human animal and the hangover of historical memory—the things that can’t be left behind, can’t be forgotten.
As someone who writes in the new book about walking past the house in Berkeley where Philip K. Dick wrote several of his books, have you made any—or are you postponing but hoping to get around to any—author pilgrimages in Southern California?
Early on I went to Chandler’s grave in San Diego. It’s a weird pilgrimage to make because there’s not much around there. The cemetery is this vast acreage of stones with no dates, and just a name on them. You have to find the row and number, and it’s like visiting a marker in cyberspace. There’s nothing to distinguish it.
What should there be?
A door, with a man walking through with a gun in his hand.
You’re a partner in a bookstore called Red Gap near your getaway in Blue Hill, Maine. Any plans to open a Claremont branch?
I don’t have the guns. Really, I get too much credit for Red Gap. I’m like the phantom bookseller there. They have some of my books , and I like to book scout for them. But as the professor and family man, I barely keep all those plates spinning.
Is the David Foster Wallace shadow at Claremont ever oppressive to you?
The presence of his absence is the kind of thing that could only be aptly or fully described by a Henry James. I never knew him. I’m not in any obligatory relationship to his work or teaching. Instead I’m helping people move forward. But I feel a really distinct tendril of his presence in the building and in people’s queries, like yours just now.
In The Ecstasy of Influence you wrestle a bit with the shadow of Advertisements for Myself as Norman Mailer’s early memo to posterity. What terms are you on with posterity?
We all have really deep limitations. I can see I’m not going to write my version of Proust or Anthony Powell. I think about that kind of project all the time. I think about the immensity and the detail, but I don’t have time, or exactly the gifts or opportunities, to do my A Dance to the Music of Time. The heartbreak of your own limitations is something that Mailer made very tangible and expressive. He stands as a permanent emblem for me, and rightly for a lot of other people, of toxic preposterousness or ego, but he is an emblem of risk taking—of making sure that you are always up on the tightrope of your own capacities.
Do you have a feel for where the completion of this nonfiction collection might take you next?
I see this book as something of a farewell to the mode. I am writing a little book on the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. And after that I have a novel that’s consumingly interesting to me and that I’m going to get back to as soon as I cross the t’s and dot the i’s on the Talking Heads thing. Then I’ll be the guy who says no to every magazine and book review.
One last question: When I came out with my book The Schreiber Theory—about how screenwriters are the secret auteurs of their movies—you sent me an e-mail that read, “May it change the world.” Do you think a book can change the world?
The world that The Schreiber Theory should have changed is the ten, or maybe 500, people who will forever think about screenwriters differently, or write differently, because of the book. I’m not against canons. No, I just like the plural, canons—your canon, my canon, where they meet. A million canons. People talk about postmodernity with this terrific fear that it’s about the demolition of standards. It has nothing to do with the demolition of standards. It’s about their discovery in unexpected places. So when I say to you, “May your book change the world,” it changed my brain instantly. I saw the canon that you saw. It became visible to me, the canon of screenwriters as opposed to directors. Does that make me want to burn my copy of Andrew Sarris’s auteurist manifesto and stop thinking about directors? No. But now your canon is visible, it’s alive, it’s part of my world. You have to remember this: Most people don’t give a shit about any of it. What you really did was join the conversation and change it, and that’s what matters. That’s what my whole premise is. It’s about being in the constellation of arguments, of canons, of literature. I don’t want to be the only book in the bookstore. I want to be one of the books in the bookstore.
Photograph by Gregg Segal