The Rumpus Long Interview with Jonathan Lethem

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“I don’t go down wrong paths, I’d rather stare at the screen and delete until I’ve put something down that is working. So, I don’t discard material; I don’t have a lot of false starts or unfinished stories or novels lying around.

Jonathan Lethem’s new book, Chronic City, is so damn big it’s overstuffed; or that’s what Michiko Kakutani says. Fair enough: It’s at different times to different strengths concerned by technology, space, local government, war; there is then a fear of the false, a fear of the real, the fear of all components of the simulacra, basically, and then above all, of the city. As often as it feels like it’s a present-day story, Chronic City seems to me as though it lives down somewhere deeper in the past. And if it does need overstuffing just to fit all that it does, it demonstrates well that in the novel, lives live well alongside others.

It’s the story of Chase Insteadman, a minor Upper East Side celebrity. He is a former child star, lately better-known as the male half of the universe’s longest-distance relationship. His fiancée is Janice Trumbull, an astronaut trapped in a decaying satellite, which is blocked from re-entering our atmosphere by an orbiting bank of Chinese space-mines. Himself trapped between his twin peripheral celebrities, Chase falls in with Perkus Tooth, a hyper-literate nuisance-critic of the Lester Bangs variety (though Perkus Tooth denies the type). The rest, again, is stuffed: it’s bright and hyper, but Lethem’s noir-brain still dabs up a little dimness at the edges; it’s a buddy book, but always cannibalised by that vagued-out, stoner paranoia. As stuffed as it is, it’s a fun book to talk about, so we did.

It was 4am here in Australia. We discussed the book, the city, Skype, what he’s working on, his basic tools, his experience of starting projects, the Upper East Side specifically, place in general, genre in general, McSweeney’s specifically, how he is not magic realism, and why there is a book-within-a-book in Chronic City which he chose to title Obstinate Dust.

The Rumpus: Wow. Can you see me?

Jonathan Lethem: Right now I see only myself.

Rumpus: Okay. Wonderful. I don’t think I have camera capacity. But I can see you.

Lethem: You were not expecting that.

Rumpus: No, I was not. I’ve barely used Skype in my life.

Lethem: Anytime anyone suggests Skype to me I think they’re the old hands. But you’re using it because it can record directly onto your computer.

Rumpus: Yes I am. But I don’t think the video. But that’s okay, I don’t need it. Yeah! How are you?

Lethem: Uh, fine, fine. It’s midday here, very cold, and already been to my office and done a little work, so, yeah.

Rumpus: Is your office near your house?

Lethem: About six blocks away.

Rumpus: Cool. Is that Brooklyn?

Lethem: Yes, exactly.

Rumpus: Cool. What are you working on?

Lethem: Right now I am trying to get going on a very short book about a movie. I’m writing about Jonathan Carpenter’s They Live.

Rumpus: Okay, this is the guy who did Halloween.

Lethem: Yes. Halloween, Dark Star, The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13—the original Assault on Precinct 13. And, what else would you know?

Rumpus: He did the Halloween score as well, right?

Lethem: Yes, he always does the music for his own films.

Rumpus: That’s exciting. Why are you writing about that?

Lethem: It’s a film I sort of love, although it’s problematic. It’s a deliberate B-movie and it has all sorts of slippages in it. It’s a weirdly shoddy, great film. But I like writing about film and I haven’t done that kind of cultural studies stuff since I finished The Disappointment Artist. And then I’ve got a friend who’s editing this series of short books on films. Do you know the 33 1/3 series?

Rumpus: I was just thinking that it sounds similar.

Lethem: It’s very much in that mode, and I’m actually gonna be doing one of those as well. So I’ll be doing one little book about a film, and then one little book about an album. I’m gonna write about Talking Heads, Fear of Music.

Rumpus: That’s really exciting. After Chronic City—well, it’s quite early in the day here, so I’ll read directly from my notes. I wanted to ask you: “What other cultural shit do you want to write authoritatively about?” Because Chronic City seems just completely stuffed with information, and you do seem just to be really interested in, uh, in a whole lot of stuff.

Lethem: Well, there’s things that loom very large for me for which I haven’t found a way. I’ve often thought that if I ever was to write a real, full-length book about a cultural subject, it would probably be Alfred Hitchcock. And he’s so important to me and I’ve read so much about him—there is a tremendous number of books already about Hitchcock—that I’ve never managed to put very much about him into words. He’s the largest unacknowledged presence in my own range of influences. I’ve written about other figures like Cassavetes or Philip K. Dick or [Bob] Dylan a number of times, so that’s one, for sure.

Rumpus: How much does something like Hitchcock or John Carpenter influence your fiction?

Lethem: Film in general is very nourishing to my writing. The form is such a close narrative cousin to the novel in the twentieth century, and I write in a dialogue with film very often. Hitchcock is particularly influential, just in the way he structures narrative and the way that, under his consciousness of the charged quality of certain settings and certain objects, parts of the world take on this metaphysical quality.


Ronnie Scott edits The Lifted Brow, an independent magazine from Australia. He profiled Mr. Lethem for The Big Issue, another magazine from Australia. This is the transcript, pretty much raw. More from this author →