The Author Looks Inward: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

By Brian GreskoSeptember 8, 2013

The Author Looks Inward: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

JONATHAN LETHEM’S BREAKTHROUGH NOVEL, the National Book Critics Award–winning Motherless Brooklyn, was published in 1999, the same year I moved to the borough. The novel’s characters walked and worked on streets — Bergen, Smith, Dean — that I was learning to call home, and near which Lethem was raised. Lethem was and is a long-time lover of so-called genre books as well as more literary fare; Motherless Brooklyn is steeped in noir tropes and yet rife with sentences that represent the labyrinthine cultural logjam of consciousness as experienced by the novel’s protagonist, the Tourette syndrome-afflicted Lionel Essrog. The novel demonstrates that the two impulses could manifest on the same page, that they could be utilized to tell one story. In fact, as Lethem seems to suggest in this interview, these terms may not even be helpful in understanding or discussing literature.

Since then, Lethem has depicted his hometown in the acclaimed novels The Fortress of Solitude (2003) and Chronic City (2009), and now in Dissident Gardens, set largely in Sunnyside, Queens, with stops in locations including Greenwich Village, a college town in Maine, and Nicaragua. Looming over every locale is Rose Zimmer, the “Red Queen of Sunnyside,”a passionate and pragmatic communist. With her high expectations, penchant for drama, and razor-edged tongue, Rose alienates her friends, neighbors, and her daughter, Miriam, who runs off with an Irish singer from the 1960s folk scene. And, as the novel opens, she is banished from her communist cell by her fellow politicos, who disapprove of her relationship with a married African American policeman — to whose son, Cicero Lookins, she becomes patron. Dissident Gardens takes the form of a collage, with each chapter shifting in setting, and focusing on a different character: Rose; Miriam and her husband Tommy; Cicero; Rose’s grandson Sergius; and her cousin Lenny Angrush (who in one memorable scene attempts to convince William Shea to name the Mets the Sunnyside Proletariats).

Fans of Lethem will find many familiar elements: the significance of New York City as a setting, history that feels big and abstract but is in fact personal and familial, parents who disappear or were never really there in the first place, and, as always, his wonderful attention to language and the cadence of speech. And yet the scope of Dissident Gardens is bigger — the canvas and cast of characters larger — and the themes more directly political than anything Lethem has written before.

I had the pleasure of talking with Lethem — about his novel, his writing and research process, and his feelings about politics — over Skype from his house in Maine, on summer break from Pomona College, where he is the Roy E. Disney professor of Creative Writing.


BRIAN GRESKO: You’ve said that your grandmother inspired this novel. How so? Can you tell me about her?

JONATHAN LETHEM: My grandmother lived in Sunnyside, Queens. Though she died when I was 30, our relationship centered in my childhood. She lived long enough that I presented her with my first published novel, but she wasn’t really there to receive it, having been a victim of dementia for many years by that time. I doubt she even recognized me.

It would be easy to foster confusion in the matter of her relation to Dissident Gardens. Truthfully, it’s a mystery to me as well. My grandmother was a formidable presence for a child — brilliant and iconoclastic, but also full of dark regions. Grievances and urgencies incommensurate with her present life, certainly more than I could grasp. I’ve invited her into my fiction before, but not in a way anyone would know to ask about. I flipped and reversed it, to use Missy Elliott’s formulation, inverting both her name and gender when I created Frank Minna, in Motherless Brooklyn. That character’s proprietary vigilance over the streets of Carroll Gardens was a version of Minna Frank’s relationship to Sunnyside Gardens, to Greenpoint Avenue.

I was swept in her orbit on those neighborhood runs — I always identified with Alice in Looking Glass, tugged along by the Red Queen. Even as a child I intuited that my grandmother was both significantly wrong and significantly right about the power operations of New York City, of Queens, of Sunnyside specifically. I was enthralled by her over-determined grievances, how these forged and distorted her relationship to the city, even if often embarrassed by them as well.

Yet the difficulty with testifying to these things is the suggestion I’ve somehow lucidly and directly translated a living person into the character of Rose Zimmer. I didn’t. I couldn’t. The secrets of the dead vanish with them to a terrifying degree, particularly those on the subject about which the dead clammed up circa 1957. My grandmother remained a kind of a cipher, a zone of uncertainty. I addressed my own lifelong perturbation as to the meaning of that cipher with research into other people’s lives — memoirs of American communists, and memoirs by family members of American communists, like Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments — and with my own fund of projection and fantasy. Then the formal necessities of making a large piece of fiction, gravitational in their own right, drew me even further from any question of factuality or confession. And of course, I scraped Rose’s consciousness up from what I had available: the same old self, me. As it happens, I have no idea whether my grandmother ever got anywhere near a Communist cell. It would seem that that should matter enormously to me, but it actually stopped mattering at all.

These questions are the kind you either address in their full inflection, or else you deny them totally, throw them out — as many writers, including myself, in most conversations, tend to do. I often feel I’ll never satisfy the muddle of expectation I’ve aroused by including details from my family life in my fiction, because it’s always merely a platform for staging the work. As Philip Roth points out somewhere, once you’ve established that life has been used, you’ve only learned the first thing — how the work began. What’s ignored is everything that comes after, the whole Megillah. For instance, it would be pointless to obscure the fact that in this book I’ve again circled back to my own automatically replenishing vacuum, the mother who vanishes — as in Girl In Landscape, The Fortress of Solitude, and, in some allegorical sense, in Chronic City as well. Yet do any of these characters equate to portraits of my mother? No. They’re paintings of a figure in a dream.

BG: Have you ever done this much research for a book?

JL: Never, and I hope never to do so much again — it isn’t natural to me. I’m ambivalent mentioning it, too, because I don’t really like research in fiction. The results are often leaden. And yet here it was necessary that I build a giant armature of factual situations in my head, a historical diorama to move through, even if I then contradicted it or blew it up at whim. I researched rhetoric and propaganda, as well as dull sociological stuff. I read mediocre novels written from the left, from the ‘30’s to the ‘60’s, to gain a better feel for the emotional texture of those stances through those decades. This wasn’t pleasure reading! I wouldn’t recommend many of the books to anyone, putting apart a handful of vivid memoirs, mostly already favorites: Anatole Broyard’s Kafka was the Rage, the Gornick book, Hilton Als’ The Women. Certain memoirs of Greenwich Village were good — the terrific Dave Van Ronk book, which, judging from the trailer, was a source for the new Coen Brothers movie as well.

Of course, in the writing, Dissident Gardens couldn’t bear much of what I’d learned. Novels don’t want to be crammed with factual stuff. I mostly left it aside, including some astonishing truths, which when you first come across them, you think, holy shit, I’ve learned this crazy thing and now I’ll blow people away by revealing this knowledge in the book! But at the juncture where you’d insert such a thing, you flinch, seeing the cost is too high. The facts will intrude — either on the reader’s experience, or my own relationship to the page, to the dream. You’ve heard of killing your darlings? You’ve got to kill plenty of the world’s darling’s too.

BG: Did it change your process?

JL: It slowed it the hell down. I started Dissident Gardens right after finishing Chronic City. On the strength of my first impression of what I wanted to do, I bluffed out a 100 odd pages. Then I had to stare at this fragment and consider its implications and accept all that I didn’t understand about the material.

As a result, I did little writing for the better part of three years, instead researching and reading. Then I wrote nearly all of the book in a long, continuous sequence the likes of which I’ve rarely experienced, in the space of 18 months.

BG: What about novels that you admired? Were there other, more pleasurable influences?

JL: Sure — that’s par for the course for me. I always have books in mind when I write. There’s what’s obvious: at times in Dissident Gardens I’m playing off Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, more than I’ve done before — though it reflects a long engagement with their work, not something new. I had Leonard Michaels in mind, and Doris Lessing, and also Christina Stead, particularly her last, unfinished book, published only posthumously, called I’m Dying Laughing. It concerns American communists in exile in London in the ‘50s, a book strongly influential on mine. I was thinking about Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren and his memoir, The Motion of Light in Water. There are gestures in various directions, some quite specific. When I did my Irish folksinger, I was thinking of Brian Moore. I wanted to write about exile from Ireland as I’d understood through it Moore’s early novels.

BG: Your previous novels have dealt with science fiction and noir genre conventions, or included fantastical elements, like the magic ring in Fortress of Solitude. Why did you make this decision to write a realistic novel at this point in your career?

JL: I never make the division in the strict way that your question suggests. Though I accept that some readers do. For me, Fortress of Solitude was as thoroughly saturated in what I’d call...not realism, because that word doesn’t work for me, but “mimetic strategies.” Some in particular I’d absorbed from Roth, and Richard Yates, and, in that book, Henry Roth.

In my experience of my own writing — which is only one piece of evidence, of dubious relevance — I’ve been cross-pollinating different strategies in all of my books. When I wrote Girl in Landscape, I was thinking a lot about E.M. Forster and Bernard Malamud. Yet for many people that conversation can’t even get started, because the book claimed to be set on Mars. So, what you’re calling realism can’t be discussed. But for what it’s worth, testifying as the person writing the sentences, on the level of the characters, language, and interiority I was already engaged with everything you’re suggesting I held off until now.

BG: I was planning on asking you next about politics, but now I’m preoccupied with the prejudice on my part, using the term “realism” as I did.

JL: We can develop the conversation along both lines, because there is a politics of realism. A critic of realism, like Frederick Jameson, would suggest that if you propose that realism is a stable referent — that it’s a useful term, which I’m never sure of — then its crucial function is to reinscribe the status-quo. Realism enforces a normative sense of what constitutes reality, and embeds this enforcement in the contract between the reader and the writer. In the context of that argument, realism fails to interrogate all sorts of things which something else — what are we going to call it? — let’s say it fails to interrogate things that various un-realisms might have a better chance of interrogating. Not that un-realisms are guaranteed to accomplish it either!

BG: Every novel is political, but this one expressly so.

JL: (Laughing) You’ve already given away your whole ground there! Are you sure they are?

BG: How much of your own politics are in Dissident Gardens? Is there a character whose political views best represent your own?

JL: Well, yeah, I believe that my politics are all over anything I write, or anyone else does, whether the writer’s particularly happy about that or not. Dissident Gardens doesn’t advocate for something. There isn’t a character I’m hoping you’ll line up behind, to march under their banner. I don’t experience my own political yearning — my own conflicted passion to see the world transformed and repaired — in any simple way. The book, now that I’ve written it, sits there for me to puzzle over, as much as any other reader, in the question I believe it frames: whether these yearnings can find a home in daily life. They don’t, not in any comfortable or continuous way, for me. And yet I’ve spent my whole life believing that I have passionate political stances, even though they aren’t much articulated in committed action or speech.

If you really want me to pick? Cicero Lookins occupies a space that seems politically nuanced but largely crumbles into contradiction. His paralysis, his outrage, his vanities, these I identify with most. I don’t mean to say “Behold me, I am a puzzle!” But the degree to which Cicero goes around feeling like a container full of very adept political critiques, and yet only alienates his listeners when he ventures to advocate for anything — I’ll admit, for better or for worse, that I also go around feeling like that.

BG: Can I ask about your connection to the Occupy Movement?

JL: I spoke at the protest one afternoon and was deeply stirred by it. It was important to me.

BG: The Occupy ideology still exists online but the physical camps have been all broken up. Do you have any feelings about how it has ended?

JL: The loss of the camps was striking, because the physical reality of those places was eloquent but also unsustainable — obviously. The activists there, who’d at some level conceived of their presence in the streets as a form of political speech, ended up taking care of the homeless and mentally ill — a very simple, tangible, and tormentingly difficult process, and quite unspeechlike. They’d been stuck with the leavings of a nightmare inaugurated in the Reagan years, when the disparity between the rich and poor began to widen, when social services, the infrastructure for taking care of human beings in this country, was deliberately and violently disassembled. So, the material prospect became that of caretaking the invisible people who we can’t bear to see — those who, as in post-Katrina New Orleans, our nation seems appalled at being forced to see. They camps became places where the world as it really is was made visible.

I should be clear that I was not one of the activists. I felt compelled by the Occupy Movement and got my name stuck to it here and there, but I’m not making any claim of being part of that project. I wasn’t physically present, which was a prerequisite. You had to go to the meetings.

I’d point you to two forms of the Movement’s persistence. Its first accomplishment, at the very outset, was to start a conversation where capitalism’s name was restored. You could remark intelligibly that you were anti-capitalist, because suddenly there was something called capitalism. It wasn’t just synonymous with Americanism, democracy, or “reality.” It was a specific thing, which, even if it was dominant, and usurping every argument mounted against it, had a name.

There’s also the Rolling Jubilee, a debt liberation movement that’s arisen in the wake of Occupy. And Occupy now springs to visibility in communities that need rescue, as after the hurricane in New York City. They’ve become adept at neighborhood triage work, ironically. I find it very mysterious and suggestive: the effort to forge a participatory movement consisting of physical presence but organized in virtuality resulted in a dialectic between the realm of the street and the website, the hungers of the human animal and the modality of the avatar. Late capitalism frequently claims these to be synonymous. Let them eat “Likes”!

BG: One characteristic of all of your work is your attention to sentencing. Your sentences are fantastic. You discussed reading aloud the entirety of Chronic City as you wrote it. Did you do that with Dissident Gardens too?

JL: That reading you’re thinking of, where I had a group of people basically trapped in the library of a snowbound coastal Maine town for a period of two weeks, with nothing to do but listen while I read Chronic City aloud, was unique. I had no opportunity, or perhaps lacked the will, to recreate that exact experiment. I do write by ear, and try to find ways to keep the book insistently engaged on that level. Particularly given some of the material in Dissident Gardens, I wanted to push tendentious language aside in favor of something alive, even if it makes me look less smart.

I’m hardly alone in claiming this affiliation! I suppose there are some anti-language novelists but I never get to hang around with them. I wonder, if we threw a novelists-committed-to-language versus novelists-who-don’t-give-a-hoot-about-it softball game, would the other side even show up? But personally, I associate it with my training in the visual arts. I dwell on the plastic stuff, the materials, because I once made things with paint and canvas, and briefly even carved stone. Sounds grandiose, right? I used to work with a hammer and chisel and a block of marble. The legacy of that training is that language feels thick to me.

I was lucky to grow up as I did. On one side I had my father, the painter, and his feeling for physical form and the practice of making artifacts. And then on my mother’s side — and this involves my grandmother too — there was the dynamic New York pleasure in argumentation, in expressive provocation and lamentation. Lately that’s at the center of what I do: just letting myself hear these voices that instilled themselves in me before I had say in the matter. Dissident Gardens is an attempt to speak in tongues. It’s full of voices that I didn’t have to impersonate so much as excavate from the crannies of my brain.

BG: After Fortress of Solitude you wrote the lighter, more comic novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Should we expect a similar break between Dissident Gardens and your next big novel?

JL: I can’t tell what I’m doing next. I’ve spent the summer recovering, as I recall having to recover from Fortress of Solitude. The hiatus is otherwise unique. The two novels required a different kind of commitment and seemed to leave a slightly deeper trench to climb out of than the other books.

I have contradictory schemes. I’ve thought about several small books that might add up to something elephantine, maybe bigger than anything I’ve done before — but only by way of several small books. I just don’t know if it’s going to coalesce. Maybe I’ll carve one or two of those books off — there’s the block-of-marble metaphor — and let them become what they want to be and there won’t be some giant project. It’s pleasantly unclear.

BG: Though it seems requisite, I have to ask: you’ve said there won’t be a “Lethem does The Bronx” or “Lethem does Staten Island” book, and yet you keep returning to New York City in your fiction. Will you ever be done with writing about the city?

JL: Three of the four books I’m considering starting are set in New York again, though in a completely different way again than what I’ve done before. Not Staten Island or The Bronx, though. I have only myself to blame for that joke: the suggestion I’ll devoutly tour the five boroughs. Yet I’ve learned not to dismiss the joke either, since in the past I’ve been cursed with having to take seriously projects I only joked about doing. The joke revealed as some subconscious promising ground. Maybe the best way to ward those places off is to vow them, like Norman Mailer with his unwriteable masterworks. So, one day I’ll get to The Bronx and Staten Island, but at the moment I have no idea by what bridge.

I backed into my life as a “New York writer,” having avoided the subject for five books. There were small indicators — in one or two short stories, in the opening of Girl in Landscape — of a deferred interest in my Gotham legacy, but mostly I felt burdened by it. I had no ambition to join a guild of writers writing about New York, or to make in my writing a subject of place, per se. Yet New York’s been a gift for me, and I’ve gotten better at accepting the gift.


Brian Gresko is the editor of the anthology When I First Held You: Great Writers Reflect on Fatherhood, forthcoming from Berkley Books/Penguin in spring 2014.

LARB Contributor

Brian Gresko is an essayist, short story author, and the editor of the anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. His work has appeared on Salon, The Atlantic, VICE, and in many other places. He lives in Brooklyn.


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