Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Lethem’
July 22, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The Times has reported that Thomas Berger died a little more than a week ago, on July 13, just shy of his ninetieth birthday. Berger wrote twenty-three novels, the best-known of which is 1964’s Little Big Man, a western picaresque that was later adapted into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman.
The Times obit finds a through-line in his work: “the anarchic paranoia that he found underlying American middle-class life.” “It was Kafka who taught me that at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial,” Berger said in a rare interview. He enjoyed a cult readership throughout his prolific career, and his books bear blurbs from the likes of John Hollander and Henry Miller; in 1980, The New York Times Book Review proclaimed, “Our failure to read and discuss him is a national disgrace.”
Today, his most outspoken advocate is probably Jonathan Lethem, who discusses an early (and démodé) fondness for Berger in his Art of Fiction interview: “When I got to Bennington, and I found that Richard Brautigan and Thomas Berger and Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme were not ‘the contemporary,’ but were in fact awkward and embarrassing and had been overthrown by something else, I was as disconcerted as a time traveler.” And Lethem effused in an essay for the Times a few years back,
Berger’s books are accessible and funny and immerse you in the permanent strangeness of his language and attitude, perhaps best encapsulated by Berger’s own self-definition as a “voyeur of copulating words.” He offers a book for every predilection: if you like westerns, there’s his classic, “Little Big Man”; so too has he written fables of suburban life (“Neighbors”), crime stories (“Meeting Evil”), fantasies, small-town “back-fence” stories of Middle American life, and philosophical allegories (“Killing Time”). All of them are fitted with the Berger slant, in which the familiar becomes menacingly absurd or perhaps the absurd becomes menacingly familiar.
Berger, who spent most of his life diligently removed from public life, seemed to submerge himself in a goulash of genre fiction, emerging every few years with something new and piquant. The variety of his books is borne out by their incredible first-edition jacket art, some of which I’ve gathered above—vibrant pastiches of everything from noir to Arthurian legend, many of them with a unabashed lowbrow strangeness that’s anathema to jacket designers today. As the author himself put it: “I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity.”
April 14, 2014 | by Jonathan Lethem
Editing Don Carpenter’s final manuscript.
Part of my job as a clerk at Berkeley’s great used bookstore Moe’s, in the early nineties, was to scour the massive wall of fiction and confront the books that weren’t selling. Out of all the staff I claimed this task because it interested me the most, and because it suited my vanity to be able to claim that “I run the lit section.” Codes, written in pencil, and discretely tucked into the corner opposite the asking price, revealed when a given title had hit the shelf. After six or eight months you reduced the price. Once it had been knocked down a couple of times, two options remained: chuck the book into the pile of discards under the staircase, or take it home and read it.
A Couple of Comedians, with its great title and Norman Mailer blurb, got me to flip it open. When right there in the stacks I was met with Don Carpenter’s punchy prose, and with his grabby, wry, and humane outlook, I took the book home. I read it. I loved it. I looked downstairs, in our pocket-size paperback stacks, and found a copy of Hard Rain Falling, Carpenter’s first novel, repackaged with a Tom of Finland–style painting and corresponding jacket copy to sell as “gay lit” (“The hard-hitting novel of a young street tough and his inevitable journey toward prison—and self-knowledge …”). I read Hard Rain Falling and thought it made two masterpieces in a row. The suggestion given by the dust jackets of the two books—and the move from the Northern California bildungsroman of Hard Rain Falling to the entertainment industry hijinks of comedians—was of a writer who, failing to sustain a literary career, had migrated to Hollywood and was, all too typically, never heard from again. Read More »
February 19, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Happy fiftieth birthday, Jonathan Lethem!
You don’t seem to have bothered to rebel against your parents’ milieu—their bohemianism, their leftism.
I tried. It’s very hard to rebel against parents whose lives are so full and creative and brilliant—the option is my generation’s joke: the rebel stockbroker. That wasn’t for me. I wanted what my parents had, but I needed to rebel by picking a déclassé art career. My father came from the great modernist tradition, and so I found a way, briefly, to disappoint him, to dodge his sense of esteem. Very briefly. He caught on soon enough that what I was doing was still an art practice more or less in his vein.
I felt I ought to thrive on my fate as an outsider. Being a paperback writer was meant to be part of that. I really, genuinely wanted to be published in shabby pocket-sized editions and be neglected—and then discovered and vindicated when I was fifty. To honor, by doing so, Charles Willeford and Philip K. Dick and Patricia Highsmith and Thomas Disch, these exiles within their own culture. I felt that was the only honorable path.
—Jonathan Lethem, the Art of Fiction No. 177
November 6, 2013 | by Jonathan Lethem
1. Her Voice in the Night. The disc jockey broadcasts all night from the lighthouse. She back-announces her selections in a murmuring, insinuating tone that, while it wouldn’t disturb a sleeper, might seduce the long-distance trucker or the fisherman on the deck of a boat offshore, some night-shift laborer twiddling the dials of a transistor, barely able to grasp its signal through the wavering night air.
2. The Swamp. Yet no, we find we will have to adjust this account. This account is out of order, already entirely misleading, we must begin again; for in this place, there are no long-distance truckers or fishermen on boats. The lighthouse stands not at the juncture of land and sea but at the periphery of a swamp, a vast mire around which the city has erected itself. The lighthouse, once a bold, phallic monument, is dwarfed by skyscrapers, by the cathedral-like domes of vaulted banks, by gleaming condominiums, by monuments of commerce. The lighthouse is only a relic, dragged here by those with an intention to junk it. For it is also the case that the swamp has become the city’s dump. Perhaps the planners once believed the city’s detritus could landfill the mire, stabilize its quicksand core. The swamp might, after the disposal of tonnages of the city’s inconvenient clutter, become ground upon which a pleasant children’s park or a serviceable parking lot could be constructed. But no. The acreage has instead displayed a seemingly infinite capacity for engulfing the rejected material, for devouring structure and remaining nonetheless a moist and murky swamp. Read More »
April 24, 2013 | by James McGirk
Assuming my issue of EYE SPY, a British glossy devoted to “The Covert World of Espionage,” can be trusted, between 1973 and 1995 the United States government (and its Chinese and Soviet rivals) spent millions hiring teams of personnel to scry photographs of enemy installations and describe their heretofore unknowable innards. A final report on the Stargate Project, a remote viewing project conducted during these years (preceded by Sunstreak, Dragon Absorb, Centerline, Grill Flame and Gondola Wish), acknowledged a “statistically observable effect,” albeit one producing information too “vague and ambiguous … to yield actionable intelligence.”
A contemporary remote viewing conducted by Jeff Martin, fiction editor of This Land Press and (with C. Max Magee) The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, yielded far better results. Imaginary Oklahoma is an anthology of forty-six writers’ attempts to envision Oklahoma without ever having visited America’s forty-sixth state. Martin, in his introduction to the book, describes his inspiration for the project. He gives nods to Lydia Davis’s collection of super-short stories, with their ability to create “worlds in mere sentences” and “beautiful questions” from “simple narrative,” and Ed Ruscha’s 1990 painting No Man’s Land, which Martin describes as “The ghostly outline of the pan-shaped land. The shadowy question mark stretched across the canvas, almost menacing.” It was an excellent pairing of prompts. Imaginary Oklahoma manages to raise the stakes of the short-prose form. Read More »
April 1, 2013 | by Tom Bissell
This year our Spring Revel will take place on April 9. In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.
In 1998, which now feels like a Triassically distant time, I was twenty-four years old and on the publishing make. Technically, I was an editorial assistant, but I was making bold, audacious, and sometimes highly presumptuous assistant editor moves. I had some call, mind you. W. W. Norton, the house that employed me, had encouraged me to come up with “ideas” for the paperback committee, which at the time felt like a huge honor. Correction: it was a huge honor. I had a few ideas, most of which, I was gently informed, stank. But one didn’t. This was the idea I had of republishing a thirty-year-old novel about a cat bite (and urban collapse, race relations, gentrification, and New York City) called Desperate Characters. Read More »