Jonathan Lethem was born in 1964, the son of the painter Richard Lethem and the late political activist Judith Lethem. His first three novels earned him a following among readers of crime novels and science fiction, and a reputation among readers of experimental novels as a pasticheur whose parodies had an uncanny beauty and depth of their own: Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) is the first and only volume in a notional series of Chandleresque whodunits. Amnesia Moon (1995) is a postapocalyptic road novel. As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) is an academic novel, a Don DeLillo spoof, about a professor whose girlfriend falls in love with her physics experiment. Lethem’s stories, many of which first appeared in the purist pages of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, were collected in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (1996).
Each of these books brought Lethem new readers, but it was Girl in Landscape (1998), a short novel about a Brooklyn girl’s sexual awakening on a distant planet, that first showed his mettle as a psychologist and won converts among readers who hadn’t cut their teeth on Philip K. Dick or Robert Coover. Although Girl in Landscape is set in the future, in space, it wasn’t just dreamlike and learned and funny, it was moving. Its voice was intimate. It was a novel for common readers. Lethem now calls it the first novel of his maturity.
Girl in Landscape was also the first of Lethem’s novels to return, obliquely, to his Brooklyn childhood. Lethem grew up in Gowanus, the racially mixed neighborhood of brownstones, tenements, and housing projects that surrounds the Gowanus Canal (an area now gentrified and rechristened Boerum Hill). This makes Lethem the only inner-city kid in the generation of novelists with whom he is usually associated: Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, and Rick Moody. His memories of the city life of children provided raw material for the fantastical Carroll Gardens of Motherless Brooklyn (1999); they are the heart of Fortress of Solitude (2003).
As a teenager Lethem studied painting at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. After high school he attended Bennington College, briefly—making him the one novelist of that group named above never to get a college degree—then eventually moved to the Bay Area, where he lived until 1998. During these years he supplemented his income as a writer by working in used bookstores. It’s the only job he’s ever had, and it has given him an erudition peculiar to antiquarians, a knowledge of books that is precise, catholic, and bibliographical, with particular concentrations in the underdog and outsider. A conversation with Lethem usually renews the cheerful conviction that some of the best books you will ever read are books you haven’t heard of yet.
Around the time that Girl in Landscape appeared, Lethem moved back to Brooklyn, took an apartment in his old neighborhood (as many writers were doing), and began to hold impromptu get-togethers every few months at his local bar, the Brooklyn Inn. This interview—or, rehearsals for this interview—began late one of those evenings, about three years ago, when I asked Lethem why the Brooklyn House of Detention—the big, glow-in-the-dark brutalist jail down the street from the bar—never shows up in Motherless Brooklyn. This question led to a very friendly and intense discussion of the various imaginary jails in Lethem’s science fiction, the relationship between novels and their real-life settings, and the book that Lethem was then writing. Which, he said, was partly about the jail.
That novel, Fortress of Solitude, is Lethem’s first novel of wide-angle social realism. It is indeed about the jail, and the place of jails in American life. It is also about superheroes, soul music, science fiction, community empowerment, Spaldeens, graffiti, gentrification, and headlocks. The novel follows two friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude—one white, the son of an experimental filmmaker, the other black, the son of an R&B singer, both motherless, both obsessed with comic books—from the 1970s through the 1990s. Along the way it captures a big swath of what used to be called, reverently, the inner city, and of boyhood and manhood in America.
To this day Lethem remains his own best, most curious biographical critic: all an interviewer needs to do is sit down, press record, and try to keep up. And that is exactly what happened last fall, during three sessions in Lethem’s third-floor walkup—in a study neatly lined with mass-market paperbacks—over the bottle of old scotch that came with Lethem’s Gold Dagger Award for crime fiction, and next to it, an ever-growing, generously proffered stack of recommendations for further reading.
You don’t strike me as an especially paranoia-prone guy, but there is paranoia all over your writing. Is that just a literary device?
My parents were Vietnam War protesters; I grew up in the era of Watergate; the first president I remember is Nixon. I remember being instructed as a child that I shouldn’t go to school and blurt that Nixon was evil. Not that we didn’t know he was evil at home, it just might not be such a good idea for me to say it. I felt he was evil like Dracula. It was like being taught not to curse when you go to your grandmother’s. So when I found that Rod Serling and Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon also agreed with me that the president was probably an evil robot programmed by a computer, it was merely a matter of pleasurable recognition that someone was naming the world.
In that sense, I’m a native. When you say I don’t appear paranoiac to you, I figure you mean I don’t traffic in the thin membrane of social paranoia. Why bother? We live in a fallen universe. We can at least be kind to one another and not jump on one another’s slightest errors or moods. In a desperate situation, pick your battles.
My sense of you, compared to people we know in common, is that you don’t care much about politics.
Listen: I’m thirty-eight. The first third of my life was spent at political demonstrations, shouting my lungs hoarse. It was as much a part of my existence as having a holiday off from school. Those were my holidays. That’s how I visited different cities, that’s how I met adults besides my parents. I was a protester by birthright. I put in my time before I could conceive that the world wasn’t being transformed by the people around me, my parents’ generation. When you’re in the center of demonstrations, you believe. My life was a demonstration. I was sent to public school in impoverished neighborhoods on principle. The day-care center on the corner of Nevins and Atlantic, in Brooklyn; I was there on its opening day, and I understood it as something that our protests at City Hall, the years before, had produced. I stood at the feet of police horses, holding a sign for day care, and then was there the first day it opened. I lived the belief that private school was anti-American. Can you possibly understand? It’s personal. It’s there in my work.
In the form? In the imagination?
In the hope that some fourteen-year-old kid in Milwaukee reads Amnesia Moon and is ratified in his suspicion that the government is television, that George Bush is the star of a rotten soap opera. That’s all I have to offer, what Philip K. Dick had to offer me, solidarity. My politics are everywhere.
You’ve said elsewhere that by going to Bennington College you’d rejected your family’s political dedication to the idea of public school. But Bennington was an art school.
It’s impossible to talk about my going to Bennington without talking about the fact that I began dropping out of Bennington—rejecting it in a “you can’t fire me, I quit” sort of way—immediately upon arrival. It’s absolutely true that I was trying to prove something by running away to a world of privilege. I meant to prove I wasn’t deprived, and my reward was a violent confrontation with the realities of class. A confrontation I’d then spend ten years recovering from. I was frightened by my father’s bohemian idealism, and I was equally frightened by what I saw as the corruption of art by money and connections at Bennington.
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.
But elsewhere you’ve described the sustenance you were taking, around this time, from international writers like Calvino, Cortázar, and Borges.
Yes. As a teenager I read those writers voraciously in a rich collision—or should I say conflation?—with the American crime and science-fiction writers I was equally obsessed with. And I devoured literary writing in English as well, but only the kind that had been fashionable in the sixties. Once I began to understand the contemporary atmosphere of the eighties—the Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver attitude, which I’ve admired in retrospect, but which was an absolute shock to me at the time—I felt only more deeply confirmed as an outsider. Between disreputable or out-of-fashion American writers and those “International Fabulists,” neither of which camp seemed relevant to the writers at Bennington, I stitched together a notion: I’d be the American Calvino, but nourished by scruffy genre roots. As though this would comprise a movement or school of writing to contextualize lonely me. It just didn’t exist, that was the only problem. There was nothing there. I could declare it, and a few people would be gulled and say, Oh, you’re going to be that thing!— but only because I’d just described it with such energy and affection. But there’s no such thing.