- Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem published a story in The New Yorker and also announced that he's giving away the film rights to his latest novel—and that was just last week. In the February issue of Harper's, the 2005 MacArthur "genius grant" recipient penned an essay on "cryptomnesia" or unconscious plagiarism. Last September, he interviewed Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone. Later this year, he'll do a comic book for Marvel. And next Monday, the versatile Lethem will appear at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh for a reading and signing of his novel You Don't Love Me Yet.
Lethem sets his new story in Los Angeles after exploring his childhood home of Brooklyn in his last two novels, Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. In a phone call from St. Louis, Lethem says that this was part of a conscious effort to "shrug off" not only the setting, but the themes and motifs of those previous books. "L.A. is just a place that I'm really sort of baffled by, and fascinated with, and it has this attraction for me, but I've never lived there for more than a month or two," Lethem said.
Lethem called You Don't Love Me Yet a "romantic farce," dealing with a group of twentysomethings making an attempt at hitting the big time with their band. Lethem admits that capturing the energy of rock 'n' roll for a novel proved a difficult task. "By making the characters these wannabes, this kind of aspiring indie rockers who never really make even the college-radio cut, then maybe I'm sort of expressing my ambivalence in trying to put across the kind of Dionysian splendor of that world," Lethem said.
Jonathan Lethem will read and sign his latest novel at Quail Ridge Books and Music on Monday, March 26 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit jonathanlethem.com. An extended transcript of our interview with Lethem appears below.
Independent: Tell us a little about You Don't Love Me Yet.
Jonathan Lethem: Well, you know, it's a complete change in emphasis in the Brooklyn books. The last two books and a whole lot of (my) short stories and essays, they were sort of in the orbit of the Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude material, having to do with, you know, not just Brooklyn, but with the '70s and, you know, a lot of very specific pop-cultural references, and with, you know, a lot of parents-and-children stuff.
I wanted to kind of all at once shrug off that set of motifs and begin again. So (Love's) being set in Los Angeles, it was kind of a way to, in a way, "decredentialize"myself. I wasn't relying on any kind of personal expertise about the setting. L.A. is just a place that I'm really sort of baffled by, and fascinated with, and it has this attraction for me, but I've never lived there for more than a month or two. It has—in a way, it's completely mysterious to me.
And the book is—it's a romantic farce, really. It's about a bunch of late-twentysomethings that are in that, you know, that kind of crushed and powerless state where, you know, they feel like the clock is running out on their 20s and they don't know if they're going to have their bluff called or not. They're telling themselves and the world that they want to be famous, they want to be in a rock band, but they're not really showing that much. And the story is of their one big moment, or near-to-big moment, of the first gig they play. And it's also an excuse for kind of a morbid romantic comedy with, you know, missed connections and strange triangles and that sort of thing.
And it also has this, there's kind of a little bit of a meditation on art and plagiarism. There's this appropriated song lyric, and questions arise of, you know, who do they properly belong to?
That ties into what you were discussing in Harper's about "cryptomnesia."Have you ever found you've committed that?
You know, I don't think I've ever had any situations where I've found that a lot of sentences were unconsciously reproduced (from someone else's work). Certainly, because I think I've very consciously invoked—I think if I'm echoing someone or if I rip someone off stylistically, I'm usually the first to know. I consider my influences quite loudly and consciously as I work, and I don't think that I need to resist (them). I have this high ideal that ultimately, my voice is extremely unique and no one can write my books except me. For instance, I avoid reading other people while I'm writing fiction. I like the buzz that you get from an influence, and I work with a lot of them in mind.
The nearest thing I've had to cryptonesia in my writing experience—at least it seems this way to me—is not a sentence or a paragraph or a particular word choice or anything, but actually the whole structure of Girl in Landscape, which, in my mind, I thought, "Oh, I'm doing an original version of a John Ford movie, and I'm doing The Searchers, and I'm doing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."And I was very conscious of the influence of Philip K. Dick, in particular, his book set on Mars, Martian Time-Slip.
Those were the conscious influences that were in front of me as I was working on that book, and then after I finished it, there was suddenly this resemblance, this really striking resemblance, to E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. Obviously, it's set in a colonial (area), the British sub-continent of India, and it has, (similar to) cowboys and Indians, these dual sets of characters, the colonized and the colonizers. I built the whole plot around a kind of, we both kind of have the famous Malabar rape scene—was the main character in Passage to India raped in the Malabar Caves or not, there's this controversy, and no one's ever quite sure whether (it happened). The book doesn't tell you, it just sort of gives you a theme.
I'd done exactly the same thing with the 13-year-old girl in Girl in Landscape—in the middle of the book, she goes into this weird sort of trance while she's in the company of this intense, charismatic older character, and the question of whether or not she's been interfered with becomes the accusation that gives shape to the rest of the book, but it's never completely clear what went on in that moment, because she was in this kind of fugue state in that moment. So, there was A Passage to India, and I didn't have any consciousness of that while I was working on the book.
In a roundtable with the L.A. Weekly, you talked about the "Dionysian impulses"of rock and roll, and how the literary world was in some ways the reverse of this. When doing a novel that deals with rock and roll, what are some of the challenges?
Yeah, I think it's hard, and, you know, I've seen a lot of writers I really like fall short in a lot of ways in this pursuit of music and rock and roll in particular, into a fictional structure. I hope that—I kind of dodged it, by making these characters sort of non-geniuses. I think the hardest thing is to persuade&mdash/for me as a reader, the most difficult thing to be persuaded of is that the music being described takes the world by storm. A fictional star that's bogus is very difficult to pull off.
By making the characters these wannabes, this kind of aspiring indie rockers who never really make even the college-radio cut, then maybe I'm sort of expressing my ambivalence in trying to put across the kind of Dionysian splendor of that world when it connects, when it pushes the boundaries of everyday experience. There's a moment in the novel where they have that, where they really connect with the audience, but it's just a moment, and they don't catch lightning in a bottle, lightning might graze them. [Laughs.] But lightning is captured.
One of the things that struck me about writing this novel is the enormous gulf between a novel and like a pop artifact. Boy, I wanted this book to feel like a great pop single, you know? I wanted it to be sort of short and irresistible and, you know, very sexy and silly, but something you loved, something you had stuck in your head, even if it was kind of ridiculous. But, you know, novels don't really work that way. The form resists it. It's sort of intrinsically a form for ruminative, you know, digressive, it's kind of a cumulative art form. It's just not like any kind of pop artifact.
The fundamental difference is that it's so primal. A song can be on the radio, or it can be played in an area. A movie can be on a screen and a thousand people can visit a movie theater, there can be this kind of elective mass experience where something's being experienced and there's a power in the audience's collective energy. A noveleven if there is this energy, where every single person's reading this at the same time, nevertheless, it's that other kind of experience. There's the voice of a novel on a page connecting with a human mind that's reading it. It's like there's a very solitary, whispering conspiracy between two brains. There's no mass to it whatsoever.
Do you feel that there's been a progression away from the fantastical in your work?
You know, I'm always combining the realistic and the fantastical in different levels of the text. What I've moved from doing, unmistakably, is the iconography of American science fiction. The way I used it in Gun, with Occasional Music, but Amnesia Moon especially, and in the short stories especially, and that's become less frequent for me, but in a book like The Fortress of Solitude, which in a way has the most howling and overt and rude and obtrusive fantastic element I've ever had in my work, this magic ring that confers flying and invisibility. That doesn't feel to me like I'm moving away from the fantastic at all, because I actually think that the embrace of it in that book is the most radical combination I've attempted, because the reality in that book is so extreme, and the fantasy in the book is of course, so unrealistic. And then, if you look at the book that precedes it, Motherless Brooklyn, well, the only element of fantasy is a neurological one, it's a language, but there isn't anything like the magic ring.
So I don't think there's a clear progression. This book kind of sublimates the fantastic stuff again. The unrealistic elements are in the direction of gentle, romantic fantasy. This isn't a real L.A.—it's kind of dream L.A. It's a midsummer night's dream L.A. But the book that I just started is going to have this ridiculous kind of Lovecraftican horror element coming on, this kind of paranoid ontological fantasy element. For me, it's a question of every book being its own separate set of terms, and its own set of images and motifs, but I'd hardly want to be forced to commit to one end or the other of the spectrum between the fantastic and the mimetic—I like "mimetic"better than "realistic,"because we'll never know what "realism"is anyway.
Michael Chabon has said that his desire is the "annihilation of literary categories."Do you agree with that goal?
Yeah, well, you know, I used to think that I had that kind of agenda too. And, you know—maybe I'm just being sort of a devil's advocate, but this idea that it's a crusade or a war to be won, which I used to be more receptive to, I've become more philosophical about it. I think that in some ways, the human mind likes to create boundaries and categories, and in fact, a lot of the pleasure I've taken in writing inside and across genre boundaries has been skirting the edges. I like the edges! I like the fact that there's these ways that people read and think and make associations, and I'm not sure that they all need to be obliterated.
What I'm doing is a much more embracing thing, much less obliterating. It's embracing, it's sort of like a group hug. I'm saying, "Let's see if I can hang out with the Western and the Martian interplanetary romance and the family novel, all at the same time."With this new one I'm writing, it's kind of a "chick lit"genre novel, what Bruce Sterling called a "shopping and fucking"novel. You know, everything in it has to do with getting haircuts, and food, and romantic entanglements. And I like dealing with different species of books. It's like living in a real zoo.
What I would want to obliterate, of course, is the caste system, the sense that anyone was, because of the motifs that they were attracted to, the iconography that they employed, was like an untouchable. And there's a lot of that, and needless to say, it's kind of pathetic, and it would be wonderful if it just evaporated.