Interview with Jonathan Lethem

AM: What made you, in a book like that, decide to bring in the element of the ring?

JL: There was never any question.  The structure of your question suggests that there was this ground of realism, and that I brought in this other thing, this disrupting, surprising element, but to me they arrived together.  It was always one idea.  The lens of the super heroic powers, as ludicrous and second-hand as they might seem to be—that was the focusing element that made the entire thing come to life.

I suppose looking at it in retrospect I would otherwise have been in the realm of nonfiction.  I think people underrate that, when they read the book.  They don’t realize how much the uncanny element in the book is intensifying their experience of what they see as realism, that it’s actually all one thing.  Because otherwise it’s very anecdotal, very sociological, very centrifugal material—it’s not emboldened into metaphor.  It’s not fiction without the magic.

AM: Chronic City has that feel as well.  There are people leading these seemingly normal lives that keep being interrupted by the bizarre.  Is it fair to say these two books were dealing the same idea of the unnamable?

JL: I think it’s a very different ration and distribution of the same kind of fundamental urge I have to reveal the presence of the uncanny in everyday experience.  It’s difficult to persuade anyone that it’s safe to talk about, so mostly we don’t, but we’re still saddled with it.

AM: Do you think that’s something kids are more equipped to deal with?

JL: I don’t think anyone’s equipped to deal with it, but kids may be more apt to seek its expression.  Part of adult life, at least in non-mystical cultures, is stemming the impulse to express the presence of the dream-life, the irrational.

AM: This is sort of a half-baked thought, but—

JL: That’s okay, we’re in a half-baked area here.

AM: (laughs) Do you think there’s something culturally telling about the popularity of superhero movies and graphic novels?

JL: Sure, and it doesn’t limit itself to superheroes.  The world is right now overrun with zombies and vampires.  And in another place it’s overrun with angels.  This stuff can be packaged and sold in extremely banal ways.  But it wouldn’t have any hold on the subconscious imagination if it wasn’t anchored in the anxious apprehension that life has more to it than meets the eye, that consciousness is stranger than prosaic reality.  The problem of being and the problem of consciousness overruns its container, which is everyday experience.

AM: Is that something fiction is especially equipped to deal with?

JL: I’m tempted to give you the exact same reply – nothing is equipped to deal with it.  (laughs)  I sound very pontifical and authoritative because I’m trying to answer your questions scrupulously, but I’m not doing anything more than gesturing in the direction of my own peculiar inklings.  I don’t have access to a secret understanding of anything.  I’m just framing questions in storytelling that are exciting to try to get on the page.  My friend John Kessel wants his tombstone to read, ‘He didn’t know, but he had an inkling.’  And it’s good enough to have an inkling.

AM: Is that part of the impulse to write for you, to make gestures toward this unknown thing?

JL: One of the great banal and true clichés about what storytelling does, besides enmesh us in vicarious experience and delight, is also to assuage our existential loneliness.  So of course this gesture of making someone else feel as strange as I feel, even for an instant, can be immensely consoling to believe I’ve managed.  And sometimes it’s very obvious and simple things that go unnamed, and after they’re named you can say, ‘Why didn’t anyone point to that before?’  Other things you gesture toward, give a momentary name, and people feel the relief flood in, but an instant later it’s unnamed again.  But that doesn’t mean the exchange didn’t occur.  Those things are just more elusive.

I’m very proud when I give something a permanent and simple name, even if it’s just in this microscopic area of experience. Motherless Brooklyn kind of does that, I think, in that way that we all kind of feel Tourettic.  I’m the guy who got to give that its name.  That’s easy, afterwards, to quantify and remark upon.

My friend Maureen is a philosopher, and she says that she learned at some point that there is an infinity of philosophical space, and the great philosophers have gone into that infinity, that void, and filled in some little area of understanding.  And then someone else will go into another quadrant and fill in another little area.  Once you arrive, if you’re not at the very birth of philosophy, you can point to two spots and pick a zone between them, maybe fill that in yourself.  That’s all I’m ever hoping to do.  That description seems perfectly lovely to me.

Some of the stuff that I’m prone to try to name is distinguished by its unnamability.  That’s what I’m getting at in Chronic City—the power of permanent inexplicability, in our experiences of our social lives, in our political selves, in our assuming of roles in everyday life.  There is a permanent gap between what we’re asked to do, the script we’re handed, and the actor secretly behind the script.  That’s why it’s about an actor who doesn’t even know he’s been handed a script, because I’m trying to name this unnameable space between our essential, disturbed yearning and the social enactment of adequate personhood.

(laughs) Sorry, now we’re way out in philosophical space.

AM: I know you need to catch a plane, but do you mind if I ask you one last question?

JL: No, if you get us out of this bleak vacuum we’re in here . . .

AM: What excites you about the future of writing and publishing?

JL: I don’t have any overview, I’m just coping like everyone else.  Authors are habitually asked this now, whether it’s going to be okay or if the Kindle is going to kill us, but I was thinking about the way new mediums change and how when the dust settles they always wind up funkier and more fallible than they might seem when they’re first approaching.  Film was going to kill radio and theater, but they changed and adapted and made room for film.  And then television was going to kill film, but now they’re all here.

One of the things that’s going to change is book culture, and by that I mean the culture that connects physically with books, which is going to be reinscribed and damaged by the arrival of electronic reading.  Because I think the book has a very deep, resonant place in human culture.  Rooms full of books, physical objects made of certain kinds of substance—this resonance is going to be magnified now because of a certain kind of threat.  The meaning of the object is heightened, and as a great lover of that object and its traditions, I think that’s kind of cool.

Alex Mattingly is a contributing editor for Booth and a Butler University MFA candidate. He has previously published interviews with Joe R. Lansdale and Matt Fraction, and his fiction has appeared in journals such as Annalemma, Joyland and 3 AM. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife.