Books Like Pictures in a Gallery: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

Sean Hooks talks with Jonathan Lethem about his newest book, “The Arrest.”

By Sean HooksJanuary 21, 2021

JONATHAN LETHEM, AUTHOR OF 12 novels, including The Feral Detective, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, discusses his newest novel, The Arrest, its relationship to literary critique, and the life of the reader who is committed to creation, with fellow Los Angeles–based writer and teacher Sean Hooks.


SEAN HOOKS: The Arrest is a thoughtful, entertaining, allusive, and humor-stocked novel, but I’m sure many reviews will deploy the words “prescient” or “timely” and scramble for hot takes that link it to lockdown/quarantine America. In music criticism, it seemed like every album review in 2017 argued that the songs were a “statement” about Trump’s election. Reviews of your previous novel, The Feral Detective, seemed to suffer from similarly lazy fulmination from what literary press we have, a gallimaufry of reductive babbling about “Lethem’s post-Trump book!” The inability to look beyond the politics of the present is, for me, a social failure — the product of a technology-compromised populace addicted to immediate gratification and the temporary relief of a dopamine rush. As a person who creates for a living, you can’t much control the way your work is received, but the serious and engaged reader appears to be an endangered species, and I don’t mean that in some top-hatted and monocle’d canon-worshipping sense. Do you think that cultural/literary commentary has become myopic instead of historically aware?

JONATHAN LETHEM: A wonderful, contrary question, Sean — a fulmination opportunity par excellence. Let’s do this!

It’s hard to make journalism about writing that doesn’t drag that writing nearer to journalism. Might be inevitable, even. Alphabet-harassers laboring in a sphere that values “relevancy” and “immediacy” tend to find in sentences they read in a novel a mirror for their own journalistic activities, habits of mind, and assignments from their editors. “Where’s the topicality, where’s the peg?” For years, I noticed that in any given publicity cycle if I offered up any sort of nonfiction “shiny object” — John Wayne with Girl In Landscape, say, or Tourette’s Syndrome in Motherless Brooklyn, or gentrification and the history of soul music in The Fortress of Solitude — I’d inevitably find it became the prevailing theme of the book tour, the reviews, the conversations.

Myself, I usually fall on this occasion with relief. Novels are hard to write, but they’re also hard to talk about. The referentiality is usually the only easy handle we’ve got. Luckily, our ambiguous slag heaps of language are often radioactive with referentiality. Language tends to get gummy with reference no matter how hard you stir it. I love talking about John Wayne and soul music. The ways the novels point away from themselves, into the world of stuff (including the stuff of myself), is not only easier to talk about, it’s part of what they’re doing. Better to embrace it.

The difficulty, though, is the way this sometimes drives deep into a paradox in many readers’ desires — if you credit this Laura Miller essay, and I do:

The further literature is driven to the outskirts of the culture, the more it is cherished as a sanctuary from everything coarse, shallow and meretricious in that culture. It is the chapel of profundity[.] […] Literature is where you retreat when you're sick of celebrity divorces, political mudslinging, office intrigues, trials of the century, new Apple products, internet flame wars, sexting and X Factor contestants — in short, everything that everybody else spends most of their time thinking and talking about.

The Feral Detective all but begged revulsion from the reader. The book gave Trump his name, so why shouldn’t it have been taken as a stab at “currency” or “relevance”? It pinned itself to facts like the election and the New York Times editorial board meeting and the inauguration. Who wants that? Everyone, and no one! If it’s tempting, briefly, to wish that a novelist you’ve enjoyed might be the one to solve the problem or crack the code, to help you think about Trump, then it’s inevitable that a part of you becomes enraged to find they’re capable mostly of restating the problem, which has defeated their character as badly as it’s defeated anyone. For Trump (and the systems and histories he both exemplifies and blots out like a blighted sun) is designed to break your brain, to break your language, to break your spirit. Why should a novelist, or their characters, be immune to such effects?

The Arrest, like The Feral Detective, and all language machines, is helplessly about itself, its author, and the immediate world circumstances surrounding its composition. It’s also an intentional project made of my thoughts and feelings, developed not suddenly and on-the-spot like some sort of journalistic memorandum, but out of the weird stew of what I’ve read and noticed and thought about for decades. I relate this novel distinctly to two earlier ones: Amnesia Moon, which I began when I was 19 and living for free in a garage on the edge of Wildcat Canyon in Berkeley, and Chronic City, which I wrote when I was 43, a new first-time father working in a warehouse full of artists’ studios overlooking the Gowanus Canal.

So far, The Arrest has been given a warm and gratifying welcome. Fewer harsh edges in the critiques and reviews I’ve read, to be sure. Maybe that’s because this novel entrenches my old methodologies of surrealism and symbolist weirdness, which makes it impossible to configure as “failed journalism.” There’s a device in it, the supercar, as iconographic and embarrassing as a magic ring or a gun that plays music. This may invite another kind of dismissal: “Too droll! Too cartoonish!” But that’s freeing, actually. That dismissal has been a hiding place for me ever since I was residing in that garage. I get to do what I want there. I always remind myself how lucky I am to get to publish this stuff.

The Arrest is populated by a surfeit of refreshingly non-young characters. I’ve recently noticed a steep drop in the use of the term “middle aged” in everyday usage and in print, so drastic that it feels like an erasure. This was for the whole of my life an inescapable category, a phrase I heard or read almost daily. Now, it’s hardly ever mentioned (and certainly not in Southern California, where we both currently reside). Have you noticed this? Would you care to comment on this disappearance and what it might say about our society and the artworks via which we perpend it? 

You remind me, out of nowhere, of one of my first impressions of California — this was the Bay Area — “Where are the old people?” In New York, they were always in your face, often running the show. At the very least slogging down the sidewalk in full view. I couldn’t find them in San Francisco. That’s a very broad stroke; obviously, they existed, but not where I could find them.

I’m ahead of your question, though. Middle age. I’ve reached it. It wasn’t a conscious choice. Reflecting on it, this seems a matter of the small-town milieu in The Arrest. I was very conscious of working in a pastoral mode, and I was thinking of books that emphasize, in their rural settings, the ongoingness of life. The young are born in such places and then set out. Either they return, and form the basis of that ongoing life, or they’re never heard from again, presumably swallowed into the cosmopolis.

Nowadays, you may be right. Despite the duration, “middle age” has been replaced by “midlife crisis” — an appalling thing that happens to a lapsed young person, not an embraceable interlude.

Before finding your footing as a books/comics/film/music-loving counterculturalist and prolific, even antic, postmodern novelist, you were a visual artist. Your labile existence has continued as you move into your late 50s as a writer of renown with a notable teaching post who publishes highly regarded stories in The New Yorker alongside scads of essays, novels, and a cornucopia of shorter works; subject of a feature-length documentary, occasional indie-rock lyricist, your bravura award-winning novel Motherless Brooklyn adapted last year into a major studio movie … So! I ask this not solely in the sense of what you think of it as something you might either attempt/avoid yourself, but in the sense of your thoughts regarding a relatively new and emergent title/label/category, one that didn’t exist when I was growing up the way “middle aged” did, and that is the term “showrunner.” Thoughts?

Still sounds like Blade Runner to me.

I like your “labile existence” formulation, and I want to do my best to own it. Honestly, though, much of what you mention is stuff that happened to me in this kooky adventure more than stuff I set out to do. I still entrench on a daily basis in the moldy old outlook of “novelist.” I mean that in the sense of I really should add some words to that novel I’m working on. For better or worse, I seldom if never wake up and think: I really should be writing comic books, or song lyrics. Those are stolen moments, for me. And what’s kept me from ever getting serious about filmmaking, or showrunning, or bladerunnering, is my certainty that that’s a full-tilt commitment; no stolen moments allowed. I’d miss novel writing too much.

As a consumer and sometime-commentator on various 20th-century narrative formats (I haven’t gotten much versed in the strictly 21st-century ones; I may be missing my chance), I’d have to say I’m ambivalent about serial television. It’s a rich ambivalence, or at least an active one — I’ve always watched plenty of television with continuing characters, open story plans, the potential to be renewed ad infinitum to Simpsons or Jeffersons durations. I’ve even been influenced by sitcom aesthetics, in a way, in Chronic City. But my vote has tended to come down in favor of stories that end. I always preferred The Twilight Zone to The X-Files. Now there’s this “each season a sort of complete thing” thing (The Wire, Fargo, etc.). That works well for me, when it does. I guess I’d probably try for that, if I wasn’t so old and previously engaged.

Your three most recent novels — A Gambler’s Anatomy (2016), The Feral Detective (2018), and The Arrest (2020) ­— are marked by terseness and compaction. Your last more capacious work is Dissident Gardens, and two significant novels in your oeuvre, The Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City, hover around the 500-page mark. But there isn’t something truly opus-like or epic length in your bibliography. To allude to one of your influences, you’re now at the age Don DeLillo was when he was writing Underworld. What is the likelihood of your constructing a single-volume “big novel” in that vein (or other colossal texts such as Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Bolaño’s 2666, Delany’s Dhalgren, or Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)?

I cut a couple hundred pages from Chronic City, and at one point the Dissident Gardens material that opened out before me seemed to require a 3,000-page length. I’m only slightly joking — it really looked that way to me.

As a reader, I’ve got a real commitment to the oceanic texts, though, if not all the ones you’ve mentioned. Dhalgren is a major talisman for me, as is Bolaño’s 2666, but I’ve never finished one of Pynchon’s long ones, nor Wallace’s novel. My most cherished are Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Children of Violence (which might be five novels, but so might Bolano’s, and anyway, the last of the five, The Four-Gated City, is a brick just by itself), Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, and Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, which I’ve read three times and might be my favorite novel by a living human.

I think even better than the special satisfaction of the loooong novel, I like the “collapsed star novel,” one which feels infinite in its intricacy and (illusions of) depth rather than sheer wrist-busting length. I’d count Kafka’s The Castle, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Cortázar’s Hopscotch in this company. Lowry’s Under the Volcano as well, though I haven’t read it since I was in my early 20s. Biggish, some of them, but more so just objects of infinite contemplation.

I waver between two poles, as I do in a lot of things, but, in the end, I think my affiliations are deeper with my teenage idols like Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith, Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, J. G. Ballard, and Raymond Chandler. This is what you’ve seen reflected in these last three novels. I like proportionate things. I like to get to the ending, as both reader and maker. And I like the idea of a “shelf.” Books plentiful enough that there’s an effect like pictures in a gallery: they’re all talking to each other, there’s cumulative meaning. That depends, of course, on luck, and on reaching at least middle age, but here I am.


Sean Hooks is a writer living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Sean Hooks has been an English professor in North Texas since growing up in working-class New Jersey and perambulating west through stints in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. His writings have been published in a variety of venues, and he continues to look for both inspiration and succor in human art.


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