The Rumpus Interview with Jonathan Lethem
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 4 a.m. 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.
Rumpus: It’s funny to think about Chronic City as a film, but it does make sense. There are those few scenes where your narrator slips into this free indirect third-person style, which I love that you use not as the standard mode of telling the story, because it’s a first-person story, but as just another device.
Lethem: When he becomes the narrator of other people’s chapters of course I was thinking of it as the Philip Roth trick, the Zuckerman trick, where in a book like The Human Stain or American Pastoral Roth allows Zuckerman to know more than he can possibly really be authorized to know about the lives of other people. But I don’t think that trick probably originates with Roth. In fact I was just rereading a Norman Mailer novel called The Deer Park, and it’s there too. Mailer uses it very unselfconsciously. His first-person narrator suddenly becomes a third-person storyteller. So I’d actually be interested in tracing what the common denominator for that is.
I don’t know where it comes from, but more and more I’ve looked for models of total freedom in narrative style. When you say the free indirect style—which is to use subjective and objective sentences, to use stream of consciousness sentences, in the middle of third person narration—that’s one kind of freedom. But I guess I’m in a way interested in even more radical notions of that, like you encounter in—well, you encounter them in places like Dickens, where no one had made up any rules yet, so there were no kind of craft rules. No one had named the free indirect style, and first and third person and past and present tense were not as restricted as they are now.
Rumpus: There’s The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera where he’s talking about Don Quixote and at the time that it was written, that and a whole bunch of other books indicate all the alternate paths that the European novel could have taken but didn’t. I think it’s interesting how these things just do become modes that you can slip in and out of, so long as readers are receptive to what you can do.
Lethem: Well, it’s always voice. Voice is the great persuader. When something’s working, it’s because the implicit narrator, the fictional writer who’s writing everything, slips into a mode of authority and persuasiveness that can put over whatever it likes. And you see that in Bolaño now, and people have been very inspired to radical strategies by Bolaño’s freedom to authorize himself to use all sorts of different modes simultaneously. But fundamentally it’s just his persuasiveness and brilliance and charm that make that work.
Rumpus: How often do you try out a voice that ends up being completely not persuasive at all?
Lethem: I don’t really have that experience. I don’t write stuff that isn’t working past a few sentences, I don’t make those kind of—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. I kind of hammer at stuff and make it work.
Rumpus: Cool, so something like Chronic City, is that—I guess this is the wrong question, but is there then an idea that you have fully-formed before you write it?
Lethem: I know a lot, but there’s vastly more that I haven’t discovered yet. A novel is enormous, and especially a longer book. I mean, Chronic City’s not the longest. But it’s pretty encompassing and various, and so I have the characters, at the outset; I have the primary characters and a few key set pieces in mind, and usually some very strong sense of an ending, an image or a situation that I want to end at. A feeling of resolution that I’m writing toward, and I may have scraps of other things, descriptions of sequences or transitions that I’m interested in. But most of it? You can’t plan a novel entirely, or the plan is as long as the novel. So there’s vast areas of darkness and improvisation where you’re just discovering what’s necessary as you work.
Rumpus: So there’s something like the story of Janice Trumbull in the space station, which I figure might be something that you could have in mind before you write it. But then something like how there are so many “un” and “in” and “irr” words in it, relationships between things and their negatives; is that then something that emerges as you write?
Lethem: Yeah, that kind of theme begins as a matter of character and voice. The Perkus Tooth character has that obsession with things that are opposite, with deceptions and disguises and unmasking things. And so the more he began to be interested in that stuff—the more he talked about it as a character—the more I realised it was revealing to me some of the thematic structure of the book. But you know, you try not to worry about this stuff as you go along; it’s more important to commit to the more tangible things, the characters, the situations, and the places, and the scenes. The deeper thematic schemes tend to trickle in and take care of themselves.
Rumpus: It’s interesting, as an Australian, that your book is an incredibly New York novel, which, you know—we kinda eat that stuff up. But we get strange impressions of New York here. Mine come from Gossip Girl. Have you seen Gossip Girl?
Lethem: I never have.
Rumpus: Okay, it makes for a strange authority on the Upper East Side, and everything looks very glamorous and awful all at once. What would you tell Australians about the Upper East Side?
Lethem: The reason I was drawn to use it is this doubleness it has. I don’t know where Gossip Girl is set, but there’s this quarter of power, Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, and Fifth, along the edge of the park, that is rightly resented and envied and treated as a kind of palace of fantasy, and Madison Avenue is literally, or is synonymous with, the advertising industry. And yet the trick to the Upper East Side is you go a bit further east, past Lexington Avenue and onto Third and Second Avenue and beyond that, and you’re in a kind of Podunk zone of Manhattan, very drab and unfashionable and sometimes quite affordable; there are a lot of rent-controlled apartments there and the shops never change. There’s a lot of really dull-looking businesses that have been there forever. It’s one of the parts of the city that is a kind of backwater. It reminds me the most of Manhattan as I was growing up. And so these two things are side-by-side, and that’s what attracted me to it as a subject for Chronic City, because that fact that the city is both so real and so unreal at the same time—the two things never resolve, they just inter-penetrate, endlessly. That was what struck me as being useful about it.
Rumpus: You’ve said elsewhere that you wanted the book to have a floating feel, temporally, and it reminds me of these 80s New York movies that I’ve seen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or something. They’re not dystopic, but they’re sort of dark, all the dark colors are accelerated and all of that. Does your book feel contemporary to you? Does it feel like the New York that you see around you?
Lethem: It’s a reality-shifted version of the middle of this past decade. The book was conceived in 2004, and I think it sort of centres in-between the two disasters, 911 and then the economic collapse, that defined the beginning and the end of this decade. And it’s about being lost somewhere in-between those two. So, yeah, I think it’s a pretty contemporary description. But New York was a virtual reality for a long time before there even was that description or that idea. It’s always been a place made up by some degree of projection and fantasy. And aspiration. And so I think I’m also describing something quite eternal that’s embedded in the life of the city.
Rumpus: Do you ever consider living somewhere else again?
Lethem: Well sure, I do all the time. I’ve kind of thrived on running away from this place as an adult. I went to California for so long and then came back, but even after that. We have a farmhouse in Maine that we go to and I’m constantly badgering my wife to consider living up there full-time. And very few people know that I was living in Toronto for a couple of years. Most of Fortress of Solitude was written sitting in coffee shops in Canada. And so I like to run away from this place and then dream my way back to it in the work.
Rumpus: Is it easier to write about a place when you have some kind of immediate distance from it, or is it easier to write about a place when you’re in just the milieu and the midst of it?
Lethem: I like both. While I was writing the Brooklyn books I was always sort of running back and forth to the neighborhoods and walking the streets again but then going off to an artists’ colony or to Canada or wherever to write. And it’s true also that with Chronic City I had to make these periodic forays to the Upper East Side, but I certainly wasn’t sitting up there writing it.
Rumpus: Peering into some kind of upper-class apartment from the fire escape.
Lethem: Or lower-class. I’ve got plenty of friends who live there and they’re not on Park Avenue. But my windows into the milieu of wealth come from a variety of places, accidental encounters that have come out of serving on the boards of art organizations or attending stupid benefits or gala functions. A little bit of that goes a very long way.
Rumpus: Okay. Once again, I probably won’t ask the correct question, but maybe this is interesting to talk about. How culturally aware are you of your novel’s positioning? It seems like people can’t really review your stuff without making some cultural or contextual comment that never feels completely right, but which has something to do with hipsterism and Michael Chabon and genre and McSweeney’s. Do you think about that?
Lethem: Yeah, I only notice what you noticed, that it never seems right. But I don’t try to anticipate or control it. It seems like a very hopeless way to focus my own energy. First of all, I wouldn’t get a result that I liked anyway by trying to control these things. And, it’s not my job. I just write the things. But for me, for instance, McSweeney’s: I published four or five novels before McSweeney’s ever existed, so when I see myself called a McSweeney’s writer I feel that particularly impoverished framework really represents someone not only with very, very little cultural perspective—for whom I guess a very new magazine has caught their fancy and it looms so, so large that it seems to define any writer who’s ever appeared there—but also someone who’s not even got the ability to, like, look up the dates of my publications. But in general, even when it’s not quite as exaggerated or thin as that kind of remark, I’m always conscious of a much more traditional and usually much older set of frameworks that are being ascribed to me.
The simplest thing to point out—it seems almost silly to point it out—is that I didn’t grow up reading Michael Chabon because he didn’t exist. And we can’t have influenced each other the way I was influenced, and always will be, by reading the mid-century writers who loomed so large for me, Joseph Heller and Nabokov and Barthelme and Philip K. Dick and for that matter Jack Kerouac. And then even later, as I was coming of age, I was never a very eager reader of brand new books. I lurked in used bookstores, so I didn’t even know of the existence of my so-called cohort or contemporaries until very recently, and I was quite far along with what I was doing by that point. So it tends to be much more revealing of a projection on the part of the person offering up these descriptions. But I’ve done what I can to sort of say: Well, actually, I’m always thinking about Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens and Graham Greene and Kafka pretty much anytime I do anything, because they were so original in forming my view of things. And then also Borges and Julio Cortazar and writers I fell in love with just shortly after that. And yet, I’ll always, of course, for very understandable reasons, be talked about as if I’m kind of engaged in a permanent alliance, a project, in tandem with Jeff Eugenides, or Michael. Whose books I love, by the way. I mean, it’s very honouring to be put with Michael Chabon or any number of other people whom I get compared to. But it usually does strike me as a real misunderstanding of where the energy in my own process comes from.
Rumpus: Yeah, cool. I can never even tell if it’s meant to be negative or if it’s meant to be congratulatory. Just what kind of comment it is. So, in another instance, it didn’t hit me until I saw a number of reviews that something like the tiger is actually this trope of magic realism.
Lethem: Well, the tiger is a lot of things for me, and I can’t really clear it up, or… Magic realism, you heard me sort of sigh, I’ve never identified very readily with that phrase. It describes a very particular South American movement. And the word magic, even if you just separate that bit, doesn’t seem to me like what I’m doing. I do like to put dreamlike, non-interpretable, allegorical elements into my work, to draw it into a charged, strange relationship to reality. But I don’t think of it as either magic or realism. I just don’t think that name fits. You know. The tiger connects to me to a number of things, and is also William Blake’s tiger, and Kafka has a parable about leopards breaking into a temple, and then I borrowed it, as I mention in the book, very directly from a writer named Charles Finney. He wrote a book called The Unholy City, and other places it came from may not even be completely conscious. It struck me afterwards that I was maybe teasing a little bit about Life of Pi, which is another book with a borrowed tiger. But I don’t put things in in a programmatic way. I don’t have like a—‘Oh, I’ve got this book and now I’ll put this tiger in and it will be such and such a thing.’
Rumpus: Very exotic!
Lethem: It was native to the book. It arrived when this version of New York City arrived. So I don’t have the best tools for picking it apart afterwards.
Rumpus: What’s Obstinate Dust all about? Why did you include it, and include it the way you did?
Lethem: Well, uh. There’s a gesture in this book and in my work in general. I have a tremendous interest in the impossible artworks. And you have Obstinate Dust in this book, but also the fjord, Noteless’s sculptures. And in Fortress of Solitude Abraham’s film is another one of these. And I really am drawn to endlessness and unapproachability in art in general. I guess I haven’t really committed anything that risks making that kind of total statement, but I like to watch thirteen-hour movies and read books that don’t have endings and so on. And so I’m thinking about that as a kind of gesture, in this sleepwalker’s world of Chronic City—obviously that book, along with Noteless’s sculptures, are attempts to startle people into awakeness, to do something that would actually break through. Then it’s also a joke about the way unread books can become cultural tokens, or objects of fascination and energy, and I’m thinking about obviously David Foster Wallace there. But also Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren is sort of enfolded in that, and The Man Without Qualities is another one. But the reference to Wallace became strange, because he died while I was finishing this book. I’d already put the reference in and then it felt disturbing to me, but it didn’t seem right to take it out. It was as though I’d be erasing him in some way. So what I ended up doing was strengthening that reference. I put it in again at the end of the book to make it mean a little more, and then I felt that it would be okay. I hope it is okay.
Rumpus: I think it is. Has anybody said anything bad about it to you?
Lethem: No. But people—as much as you might imagine from the violence of Internet conversation that people will say the bad things they’re thinking—people in person never do. They might hide them on some blog, but in person they never confront you. So I don’t know.
It seems possible to think I’m dishonoring Infinite Jest, but I don’t have that in mind at all. My characters are often caustic about a lot of things, the city itself for instance, and one another, and all sorts of cultural objects; for instance just to give a silly example, the way that Chase is very harsh about Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, the Steve Martin movie. But if anything gets into my books at all, as an overt reference or slightly disguised the way that David Foster Wallace is slightly disguised, it’s almost invariably because the thing has meaning to me, tremendous value and interest. I don’t really bother putting in anything that I dislike. So people are often thinking I’m attacking stuff that I’m actually terrifically interested in. It’s just that in conversation they sometimes get some scuff marks on them. That’s where the pleasure of handling things is. You can’t help but scuff them up a little bit.
Rumpus original art by André Eamiello.