Jonathan Lethem on his new dystopian novel, “The Arrest”
On the bookshelf
By Jonathan Lethem
Ecco: 320 pages, $ 28
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The Jonathans! Suddenly it seems like a long time ago. They arrived between 1995 and 2005, novelists tasked with relieving grizzled Roth and Updike as frontline reporters of the American man’s psyche. It was a job we were sure would last forever.
It helped but it was not essential to be called Jonathan. Joshua Ferris and Jeffrey Eugenides and Junot Diaz – all Jonathans, and maybe even Jennifer Egan too. And that just puts us out of the way of the letter J.
It was a classification that was both stupid and insightful. As the Jonathans sailed to black-tie literary fame, a different world quietly opened behind them, in which the roads to general success as a novelist were not traced primarily through a rich, melancholy whiteness. Even if you liked some or all of the writers individually, the nickname felt fed up. It was a coincidence that so many of the best emerging novelists were called Jonathan; simultaneously, it was not at all a coincidence.
“It was just funny,” Jonathan Lethem said recently. “After so much effort not to be cataloged or categorized, it was a perfect form of humility.”
He paused, perhaps reconsidering how funny it really was, and added, “It was the dumbest identification you could have.”
Lethem, now 56 years old and author of a new novel, “The arrestwas and to some extent remains the Jonathan most closely identified with the most Jonathan of places, Brooklyn. His private investigator novel ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ won him wide notoriety and its 2003 sequel, ‘The Fortress of Solitude’ , a fantasia comic book from Brooklyn, briefly made him one of America’s most ubiquitous novelists.
Both are distinctly town novels, and readers may have had the mistaken impression that this was Lethem’s only subject. But he has always been a great writer. An editor whose opinion I highly esteem told me that she admires the most “Amnesia moon“and”Girl in the landscape, the two books that directly preceded the author’s most famous. They are both post-apocalyptic novels, the first contemporary inspirations of this indomitable trend.
So they are also the ancestors of “The Arrest”, another of Lethem’s post-apocalyptic Earth operas, as I started to think of them (more or less a space opera without space). In Lethem’s words, the novel is about “this incredibly gentle collapse, where organic farmers rule the world.” Its protagonist, Journeyman, is fortunate enough to have a sister who is one of those farmers, and they live peacefully in the afterlife until Peter Todbaum, Journeyman’s old Hollywood running buddy, appears in a monstrous armored vehicle, seeking to settle scores.
Since 2011, Lethem has been the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College, a position I spoke to, including Lethem, made an effort to highlight that it was previously held by David Foster Wallace. (Wallace, typically, was always around the Jonathans without looking exactly like one of them.) He has children – they’re in a hardcore Beatles phase – and mortgages on both coasts, including one in Maine. , not far from the setting of “The Arranger.” An implicit question in the new novel is how many people will lead the life of this bourgeois before he is kidnapped.
It’s no mystery why stability might appeal to Lethem. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a modernist painter (his father) and a passionate activist (his mother), a baby in red diapers, the turmoil of politics traced in his earliest memories. Like so many artists of his generation, as a teenager he found a post-hippie sanctuary in the bedroom, especially in what might have been considered nerd culture but is now just culture, reading loads of genre novels and comics. He wrote about seeing “Star Wars” more than 20 times in a theater when he was 13.
After a stint in Bennington, Lethem spent much of his twenties working at bookstores in Berkeley, which, according to maps made available to The Times, literally cross the country from Brooklyn. At the same time, his elegant, exciting and inventive fiction was good enough to attract the attention of other West Coast writers.
“He was putting news in science fiction magazines, and it was good,” recalls Kim Stanley Robinson, who met Lethem at Ursula Le Guin in Napa Valley. Robinson is now considered in many circles to be America’s greatest living science fiction novelist. Karen Joy Fowler, another novelist who has managed to switch between science fiction and literary fiction, was also impressed. “He was really steeped in detective novels, detective stories from the 1940s, while being an intensely literary guy. She was a very nice person. “
Lethem expected to be the kind of pocket writer who would be discovered late, if at all; instead, his early novels made him, in Robinson’s description, a “star.” He returned to Brooklyn just as the neighborhood realized its status as an artistic frontier and quickly became one of its most famous residents.
“There was New York [crap], Lethem said.
In conversation, Lethem is nervously entertaining, exceptionally bright. He speaks in the practiced phrases of a teacher, that is, in thoughts that we have thought about a lot, but a long time ago. Trying to get him out of this register is difficult.
When he talks about Brooklyn, however, he seems less assertive, much like someone who inadvertently timed the tech bubble exactly, stepping out of the market much richer but slightly bewildered. There is a serious coincidence that determines which writers become famous, and famous writers often seem in conflict over this, disavowing or disputing some of the details of their breakthrough without (naturally) wanting to give up the fundamental validity of what happened. past.
Lethem has one of the most elegant answers to this riddle I have heard: “The eccentricities of my project finally prevailed,” he says, “over the idea that I was meant to be… whatever it was. … Serial failure at the Great American Novel, which is the only thing you can do with it.
In fact, he seems to have tried this for a while, producing novels like “Chronic City” and “Dissident Gardens”. But recently, he returned to more ostentatious genre pieces: his previous novel “The savage detectiveReads like acid-soaked Ross Thomas, and “The Arrest” frankly rests on long, complex lines of descent through fantasy and science fiction.
It’s wonderful read, gracefully gonzo writing, often unexpected but quite right emotional beats. Lethem doesn’t have all of the novel’s gifts equally (“I gave up on him when he named a character Perkus Tooth,” critic John Self said, and it’s true that non-cartoon characters aren’t his. strength). But his work has become genuinely touching, in a way that it was not earlier in his career, because at least the underrated “Dissident Gardens. “
Robinson, for his part, sees “The Arrest” as a significant change in Lethem’s vision. “I still read him as a political thinker,” Robinson said. He believes Lethem’s early education in activism left him strongly skeptical of the power of direct action to effect change, a position that can loosen up slightly. “The arrest,” suggests Robinson, offers a glimmer of good humor on the possibilities of a social contract even in a fallen world.
Lethem himself sees complicity as perhaps the major theme of his novels. (Writers are notoriously uneven critiques of their own work.) In truth, it seems to be something more mundane and admirable: the strangeness, the strangeness of our world and other possible worlds, and the places where these surrealities merge.
In that sense, Lethem’s fluorescence in Brooklyn was just the most zeitgeisty moment the author has had in a long career devoted to writing intelligible but ostensibly strange novels. Considering this topic, Lethem said he often thinks about the liner notes Neil Young wrote for the “Decade” collection. “He comes up to ‘Heart of Gold’ and says, this song got me in the middle of the road. And I realized I wanted to be in the ditch instead.
Good! It’s something easier to decide from the middle of the road. But they were still serious and fantastic souls, the Jonathans helpless touchstone lovers of their youth, “Gunsmoke”, the Fantastic Four, Neil Young, almost anything televised or really printed, their prose a blizzard of references. and you read. In a way, they belonged to the last backwater: Brooklyn just before the internet’s total diaspora, the last place in America that could possibly believe it was the center of the artistic universe and that the stories of a group white men were the best. way of understanding us. “The Arrest,” perhaps not coincidentally, recreates the disturbance of an equally charmed problem community.
It is not surprising that this is such a clever and funny book, because the Jonathans have produced a great number of clever and funny books, and even – in “The Corrections” and “Freedom”, both by Jonathan Franzen – both masterpieces of the novel. But as gifted as they are, Lethem and his peers have very clearly benefited from structural factors of geography and misogyny as well.
The cost of this is that they have been on the losing side of this great book ever since – the curious and intriguing progression of Lethem’s work overlooked by some readers because of his first name.
Even the construction of this profile around the concept would undoubtedly irritate him disproportionately. But of course, that’s also why the profile exists. He accidentally summed up this dilemma for me as he spoke – with sincere and winning modesty – about a different subject, the non-radicalism of his decision to mix genres so often. “I just had the chance to come when it was an obvious thing to do,” he said. “I wanted my own context to exist. He hesitated, considered. “And it kind of went halfway.”
Finch’s novels include the mysteries of Charles Lenox.