‘No, I don’t paint anymore’ – Bookmunch Classic Interview: Jonathan Lethem

jlethemNo sooner has 2004 got under way than the first major American novel of the   year comes blasting through the ranks: Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of   Solitude follows in the footsteps of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, a white   kid and a black kid, as they grow up on the streets of Brooklyn and takes in   everything from music and comics to conceptual art, tagging, street violence,   gentrification, first love, sex, death, murder and drug abuse. It’s one hell   of a ride, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s already earned much in the way of   advance praise. Which, for once, is more than justified. Peter Wild   spoke to Jonathan Lethem about The Fortress of Solitude, Brooklyn, music, Richard Linklater and his Dad.   (7/1/2004)

Peter Wild (PW): Better than the first half of The Fortress of Solitude resides on a single Brooklyn street. Dean Street to be exact. We reside, for the most part, in the company of children. If we can start by talking about your childhood – how similar to Dylan’s upbringing was your own? I know that people have read you into the characters of both Dylan Ebdus and his father Abraham (which I’m sure you resist to a greater or lesser extent) but – to me – the book is less an autobiographical work than a hymn of praise to the city in which you were brought up (a definite successor, then, for Motherless Brooklyn). What do you have to say about the perceived autobiographical aspects of the book, and the fact that the city is like a character in the novel?

Jonathan Lethem (JL): Our childhoods are a lot closer to one another out-of-doors than in. I tried to depict the street nearly as a documentary – not that the kids are portraits of those I knew, but that the world they know is the world I knew, from games to crimes to schooldays. The music, the pulse of street talk and the variability of the neighborhood from one block to the next, and from one moment to another – that’s where the book’s autobiography resides. Dylan is as much a composite portrait of several of my friends and of my brother as he is a self-portrait – and self-portraiture in the book is projected in Mingus, Arthur, and particularly into Abraham, Dylan’s father, as much as into Dylan.

My own house, growing up, was nearly the opposite of Dylan’s: loaded with music, color, siblings, neighbors, friends. Our home was communal, with other adults – friends, cohorts, or students of my parents – living with us.

As for the city being a character, I’ve often said it myself without knowing exactly what it means. The truth is whether Brooklyn or not I’ve been quite obsessed with the way character and landscape interact, and the way lives are formed in the tension between individualism and community. It seems to me Fortress is almost all about this – the fragility and poignance of human attempts at belonging, at finding a context or an environment that could welcome who they feels themselves to be: “Find myself, find myself a city to live in…”.

PW: One of the things I think Fortress . . . does well, I think, is recreate the way in which children learn about the world around them – there isn’t exposition as such, rather it’s osmosis – whether the event is local and personal (say, Rachel’s departure), or national or international (say, John Lennon’s death, which we pick up through Barrett Rude Jr’s need for a gun), we pick it up retrospectively. Memory is fostered by remembrance, as it were. This is probably a dumb question but: how difficult is it to say something without saying it?

JL: I think I learned to write fiction the way I learned to read fiction – by skipping the parts that bored me. The descriptions and transitions and explanations which always dulled my imaginative fusion with the material. So you’re probably detecting a bit of that: my flinching from the methods of discourse that leave me cold.

PW: Two cultural stopsigns, just quickly: comics and music. There are times, watching Dylan, it’s like a mirror for me. He gets to things as I got to things. He’s a – horrible word this, sorry – adultescent like I am. How important were / are comics and music to you these days? Who and what brings out the John the Baptist in you?

JL: Music is still essential, maybe ever more essential. I surround myself with it in private communions but also use it as a prime channel of connection with others – the air in the room between us, emotional oxygen. Comics? Honestly, that’s more a matter of nostalgia for me. I think most of that energy has gone to my love of literature, and my love of film – the other visual-narrative form.

PW: Following on from that: I read an article in The Guardian (English newspaper) last week in which a guy talked about being a nerd. He asked a bunch of people in a comic store whether they were nerds or geeks. Most people objected to the nerd tag and embraced the geek tag (geeks still have girlfriends, they just care about “meaningless” stuff, like comics and books and music and movies). You have anything to say about the nerd / geek dichotomy?

JL: I never would have thought to consider that dichotomy, but then I’ve never related to the work geek at all – it sounds much more horrible than nerd, to me. Like a freak biting a chicken’s head off in a sideshow. Nerds are just deep, and neurotic, fans. Needy fans. We’re all nerds, on one subject or another.

PW: Fortress of Solitude is a big book – both in length and theme. You’ve spoken elsewhere about how you feel Fortress is indebted in places to Philip Roth. You’re covering the big topics – race, identity, place, love, etc – but (for me) the book feels intensely personal. I feel like you’re working something out / through. And I’d guess (but it’s only a guess, so don’t bite my head off if I’m way out!) that now you’re done. With the “something” that constitutes the book. Am I right? Or wrong?

JL: Oh, it was certainly an intense personal journey for me, absolutely. Though I’d be horrified to try to name a ‘something’ that was being worked out. Nothing that could be named.

PW: And if I’m right, would I also be right in saying that the next piece you turn your hand to will be – off the map. As it were . . .

JL: Well, I’ve always felt the need to abandon most of my methods each time I begin again. But it may be fair to say that this next work will be even more different than before… and certainly that it will benefit from the enormous cleared ground of Fortress – but the truth is I don’t know very much about the next work yet at all, except for a few things it couldn’t possibly be: Brooklyn again, for one thing. Or parents and children again. Or ten years in the making.

PW: When I kicked off reading the book, I found myself having to read quite slowly. Words tend to muscle themselves into your line of sight and you have to reappraise what you read as you read. Which reminded me, at times, of reading Underworld. This sense shifted somewhat after about fifty pages, and I found myself reminded more frequently of Eugenides’ magnum opus Middlesex. I suppose this came about because the book feels like it offers up a vaulting ambition. Fortress is a grand book. By the end, however (and second time through) I was reminded much more frequently of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. This is a warm book. A buddy book. Friendship, perhaps surprisingly, stands at the heart of the Fortress of Solitude. You’re telling a story. But what I think the tones indicate, however, is that there is a slight conflict between style and storytelling. Which would you say was the most important?

JL: I can’t agree with you that there’s a conflict. For me, discovering the voice of this book was a matter of reaching for the widest possible variety of methods and strategies – the largest possible music. Granting myself that freedom was exhilarating, because after the first few dozen pages it began to seem possible I could say anything I’d ever wanted to say, and that the strategic vocabulary put my other books to shame. For me there’s an absolute unity in the voice. I hope I’ll find something like that again, but it wouldn’t be too tragic to feel it only once in a writing lifetime.

PW: Like Abraham, your father is also a painter, and, I read, you started out as a painter yourself. Early book titles – Gun, with Occasional Music, Girl in Landscape – read like possible paintings and much of your description betrays a painterly acuity. You offer up the world in a startlingly fresh way. The reader is forced to re-see that which he / she sees most likely everyday. I was sort of curious then about what wrought the shift – from paint to prose, and why prose keeps you hooked, and whether you still paint?

JL: No, I don’t paint anymore. I haven’t since I abandoned it at 19, in order to begin writing seriously. The limitations of wall art in depicting time – narrative experience – were always terribly frustrating for me. I’d have been a filmmaker, eventually, or a cartoonish, or something else which extended from the visual arts into the making of narratives – if I hadn’t been able to shift into fiction. But of course you’re also right, that my fiction has been influenced by the visual arts training, though not in obvious ways, it seems to me. I don’t, for instance, offer tremendous amounts of visual information in my work. More verbal and emotional and conceptual information. As you point out, I mostly leave visualizations to the reader. I defy you, for instance, to find a description of the objective appearance of my character’s face, or dress – I just can’t bring myself to offer it. That stuff goes in the category of what I skip when I’m reading books myself, and so have never been able to write.

PW: Another quick one: Richard Linklater’s movie Waking Life [an animated film similar in some respects to the film Abraham spends his life constructing] must have appeared when you were midway through writing The Fortress of Solitude. Did you see the movie? What did you think?

JL: I love that movie. Linklater’s one of my favorite directors. Dazed and Confused is the film that influenced Fortress.

PW: Has your father commented on the figure of Abraham?

JL: Yes, of course. He’s said “I don’t relate to that guy”. Which isn’t at all surprising. It’s the people who know me best who know the clear extent to which the book honestly ISN’T autobiographical. And my father, being himself an artist who melds material from his own life in an imaginative and transformative matrix, is particularly qualified to identify my method of doing the same…

PW: Last question: The Fortress of Solitude has met with rave reviews in the US. People are talking about it like hey, this is going to be the book that breaks Lethem, the one that makes him a household name, The Corrections of 2003 / 2004, if you will. I just wonder how a writer reacts to that kind of thing. Do you react to that kind of thing? Or not?

JL: Oh, god, it would be impossible to react to it in any way except being flattered, and finding it completely silly. I’ve had the odd good luck of starting slowly and building gradually, something few writers are allowed anymore. As a result I’ve seen each of my books called ‘the breakthrough’, in turn. And each was, in its way. I’m just glad Fortress is going to find its way into the hands of so many readers. That’s all that matters. The rest is gossip, even when it’s pleasant.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is published by Faber & Faber priced £12

Peter Wild


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