Jonathan Lethem, the Elephant Man

By Ira WellsApril 16, 2015

Jonathan Lethem, the Elephant Man

Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

If everyone is continually executing interpretive strategies and in that act constituting texts, intentions, speakers, and authors, how can any one of us know whether or not he is a member of the same interpretive community as any other of us? The answer is that he can’t […]. The only “proof” of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: “we know.”

            — Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum

You, postulated readers: Aren’t you now divided into two teams […]? Have a look at yourselves, on either side of the room, like tweens at a dance party: Shouldn’t one or the other gender be exiting the floor about now? But stay.

Please do stay.

   — Jonathan Lethem, “Preface,” The Ecstasy of Influence


MANY OF JONATHAN LETHEM’s most compelling fictions involve characters who are conscious of themselves as characters in the unfolding drama of other people’s lives. Near the end of The Fortress of Solitude (2003), which follows its protagonists through a progression of adopted and discarded selves over the span of some 20 years, Lethem reveals what constitutes, for him, “Life’s eternal lesson: people return in new guises. You learned it and taught it at the same time.”

To what degree are Lethem’s characters separable from, or continuous beneath, their various guises and disguises? Are Lethem’s characters supposed to strike us as “real”? To what extent does Lethem endow them with consciousness and depth and psychological interiority — qualities we might associate with the literary construction of a “self,” however deluded or divided that self may turn out to be — and to what extent is the interiority of “real” people divisible from the textual ecosystems in which they are constantly immersed? These questions are part of an argument that has been unfolding in Lethem’s work for a long time now and one that continues in Lucky Alan, his latest collection of stories.

Lethem, like the best of his characters, has also returned in different guises — the first of which was a purveyor of pulpy, postmodern genre fiction. Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) transplants the traditional hard-boiled detective figure into a Terry Gilliam–style future complete with “babyheads” (genetically supercharged toddlers who smoke and guzzle whisky at their exclusive underage bars) and “evolved” animals such as Joey Castle — a “kangaroo gunman with an itchy trigger finger.” Amnesia Moon (1995) follows Chaos (a.k.a. Everett Moon) through a postapocalyptic America in which certain “dreamers” can reimagine material reality. In As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), an anthropology professor’s girlfriend falls in love with Lack: a void generated by a particle accelerator. And Girl in Landscape (1998), in which a 13-year-old Brooklynite is forced to negotiate the trials of adolescence on the Planet of the Archbuilders, partially recapitulates the plot of John Ford’s The Searchers. Lethem has always been explicit about his formative influences, and this initial quartet of novels draws openly from the work of Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon.

If playful assimilation of genres and influences characterize Lethem’s early efforts, Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and The Fortress of Solitude (2003) constitute something of a paradigm shift. Those novels, with, respectively, their Tourette’s-afflicted private investigator and magic, flight-enabling ring, certainly bore some of the fanciful fingerprints of the “early” Lethem, although both folded their more whimsical elements back into narratives that were decidedly down to earth. An interviewer once asked Lethem (of Motherless Brooklyn) why it had taken him so long to write a “straight” novel. Lethem bristled at that characterization. “What’s straight?” he responded. “I understand your assumptions, but you know that I have to point out how silly they are. There’s no important sense in which I ever began or resumed or stopped writing straight novels.”

Lethem presents himself, at least part of the time, as an old-fashioned postmodernist. The interviewer’s assumption (that Lethem’s early genre fictions are less “straight” than his more recent work) strikes the author as “silly” because it fails to recognize that “Brooklyn” is every bit as constructed and mediated through language as the Planet of the Archbuilders. “All writing,” as Lethem asserts in his preface to The Ecstasy of Influence (2011), his most recent essay collection, “no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols rather than the ‘opening of a window onto life.’” Lethem’s emphasis on the linguistic construction of reality, combined with his insistence on the inescapability of “influence,” his use of pastiche, his promiscuous intermixture of so-called high and low cultural forms — all of these features suggest the image of Lethem as a self-consciously postmodern writer, an author who (per Roland Barthes) is dead and loving it.

In the paragraph immediately following the one quoted above, Lethem goes on to assert that his postmodern assumptions do not diminish

my sense of passionate urgency at the task of making the giant octopus in my mind’s eye visible to yours. It doesn’t make the attempt any less fundamentally human, delicate, or crucial. It makes it more so. That’s because another name for the giant octopus I have in mind is negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves — the permanent trouble of being alive.

Lethem deflates one supposedly naive realist whopper (that writing involves “opening a window into life”) while trumpeting another (writing instead involves opening a window into the authentic self). The degree to which Lethem’s fiction actually opens either window remains a bone of contention among critics.

While Lethem does not understand his work as having “straightened up” over the years, he does not deny that some form of chrysalid transformation has taken place. In fact, he believes that he is a former termite who recently mutated into an elephant. The terminology derives from a 1962 essay by Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” in which the painter and critic compares the wandering, explorative, messy, aesthetic production of “termites,” who might not be aware of larger issues while working, with the grandiose, carefully formulated, self-consciously “major” offerings of artistic elephants.

Elephants — they can be painters, actors, writers of all sorts — tend to think of art as “an expensive hunk of well-regulated area.” They’re driven to “1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, 2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and 3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.” Termite art, by contrast, engages in a “squandering-beaverish” activity; “it goes always forward eating its own boundaries”; it “aims at: buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, overall, concentrate[s] on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed.” Post-Fortress Lethem is, in the author’s own estimation, more of an elephant than a termite — he distrusts the auto-marginalizing gestures of perma-termites — although he still occasionally sets out to demonstrate “what termite moves you can still try to bust in an elephant suit.”

Lucky Alan is then either a return of Lethem as termite (or at the very least a collection of recent termitic offerings) or an elephant dropping (an emission of material having moved through the digestive system of The New Yorker) that is more or less a matter of routine for a pachyderm of Lethem’s size.

A few facts about Lucky Alan: it consists of nine stories, all of which have been published elsewhere, seven of which are currently available online, for free, in their full text. Of the two stories that are not accessible online, one was initially published to accompany a book of photographed snow globes. (The snow globes in question are not reproduced in Lucky Alan.) The other, “Their Back Pages,” concerns an group of comic book characters stranded on a desert island and contains sentences such as “Fishy splishy wishy hup huzzoo!” and “How can I lead the island when I can’t even keep tabs on the Dingbats?!?!?!”

These more eccentric offerings aside, the stories in Lucky Alan are pristine elephant renderings — albeit elephant renderings that are riddled with termite pathways. The title story tells of an unlikely friendship between the first-person narrator (a failed actor) and a theater director named Sigismund Blondy, whom he serendipitously encounters in “near-empty Thursday matiness of indifferent first-run films.” Blondy, who is almost regal in a shabby, Bellovian sort of way, is “the venerated maestro of a certain form of miniaturist spectacle (Krapp’s Last Tape in the elevator of a prewar office building, which moved up and down throughout the performance, with Blondy himself as Krapp, for cramped audiences of five or six at a time).”

This accidental friendship turns out to be a framing device for recounting the details of another one: Blondy’s acquaintance with Alan Zwelish, a relationship that is at first governed by the ebb and flow of life on 78th Street, where they exchange neighborly barbs in the late-night Korean store or in line at the ATM, but gradually assumes an intangible emotional heft. One day, Blondy spies Zwelish with a new Asian wife; not long after that, he detects the slight protrusion under the bride’s shirt. Blondy (“not without asking first”) reaches under Doris’s shirt, cups her stomach, and murmurs, “lucky Alan.” The next mention of Alan is that he has died of an inoperable brain tumor, prompting the emotional crux of the interior narrative of “Lucky Alan”:

Blondy began weeping, openly, pouring out stuff he didn’t know was inside, matters of his fear of death generally, as well as rage at Alan Zwelish for having pushed him away and at himself for having let himself be pushed.

Blondy’s reaction recalls the catharsis Bellow achieves when Tommy Wilhelm (another failed actor) breaks down at a stranger’s funeral:

Standing a little apart, Wilhelm began to cry. He cried at first softly and from sentiment, but soon from deeper feeling. […] Soon he was past words, past reason, coherence. He could not stop.

Back in the framing narrative, on the penultimate page, the narrator discovers a possible termite hole in the story: “I felt a paranoiac certainty that in telling his tale Sigismund Blondy had enlisted me in a theatrical invention — cast me in a role — for the benefit of an unknown audience, perhaps only himself.” This option is quickly dismissed, however. The story closes with a peroration to Blondy, with our narrator assuming the role of a cut-rate Nick Carraway: “I’d have done anything for Blondy at that moment […]. I hoped Blondy would live to a thousand, for revenge.” Blondy was worth the whole damn bunch put together.

Sometimes the termite hole (or what appears to be a termite hole) in these stories is rather more obvious, as it is in “Procedure in Plain Air.” Once again, Lethem roots the story in an efficiently drawn protagonist (“Stevick, meant to be job-hunting, wasn’t”) situated within a sharply observed urban milieu: Stevick can’t stand his local café’s “ambience and fancy name, its well-programmed iPod and fake-industrial chairs and tables and counters succeeding too completely, the room seething with overdressed-disheveled types.”

Stevick is thus an “outdoor-bencher,” which is why he witnesses a mysterious team of operatives jump out of the back of a large van, dig a hole the size of an inverted phone booth beneath the Brooklyn pavement, and insert a bound and gagged prisoner into the hole before driving off. When it starts to rain, Stevick, taken with a sense of civic responsibility (or perhaps some sort of solidarity with the underground man) picks up an umbrella and spends the rest of his day as a human awning, shielding the detainee from the elements. Commuters eventually start flowing back into the neighborhood, and one pauses to give Stevick a piece of his mind:

“You artists need to grow up and learn the difference between an installation piece and a hole in the ground,” the man sneered. Surely Stevick’s age or younger, yet dressed like Stevick’s grandfather, he added, “Slack-ass.”
Stevick was incensed. “There’s a man in this hole!”
“Don’t bore me with your disgusting personal situation!”
“It’s not a personal situation, you fucker!”
“Roll up and die, grubbie!”

This expensively attired philistine is obviously an object of contempt for Lethem (and Stevick rightly tries to impale him with the business end of his umbrella), but his more symbolic role is to lampoon a bourgeois critical prudishness that might disapprove of Lethem’s termite hole. His is the cloddish critical mindset that would wonder why Lethem can’t just focus his talents on the venerable occupation of the lyrical-realist author: why waste his time (and ours) with termite holes when there is the serious business of marriage and God and consciousness and the human condition — the proper business of fiction?

Lethem’s hole in the ground, however, turns out not to be a termite hole at all. After our Samaritan has spent the entire day protecting the detainee from the rain, another operative appears and equips Stevick with his very own jumpsuit. He’s been “promoted from a temp position to staff,” and Stevick is happy to oblige: the story ends with Stevick resolving “to do a good job.” “Procedure in Plain Air” furnishes an allegory for how an average American becomes complicit (through humanitarian impulses) in the perpetuation of a human rights catastrophe that is playing out in the very foundation of society. (“We’re complicit with a well-recognized nightmare,” one character says in “Pending Vegan,” the collection’s closer.) But the hole in the ground is not evidence of Lethem “eating away at the boundaries” of his story in termite-like fashion; rather, it is a receptacle for the story’s allegorical superabundance. The hole may appear to be a somewhat absurdist gesture, but there is nothing absurd about the moral allegory it activates. The hole only emphasizes that “Procedure in Plain Air” is “an expensive hunk of well-regulated area” — an elephant move par excellence.

“Pending Vegan” decocts the issue of America’s complicity with moral, aesthetic, and environmental disasters through the agonies of another feckless, middle-class male: “Paul Espeseth, who was no longer taking the antidepressant Celexa, braced himself for a cataclysm at SeaWorld.” Like any semiconscious NPR-listener of his generation, Paul is aware of the horrific allegations against the theme park. He has heard the stories of animal abuse; he is disgusted by the notion of enslaving animals for a cheap thrill. Yet he also feels the super-egoic injunction to provide his daughters with an “experience,” or maybe he just didn’t have it in him to do battle with his wife that day. In any event, there he is, another defeated dad, pushing the overloaded double stroller through the park’s curved pathways, feeling “squeezed into grooves of expertly predicted responses and behavior, of expenditures of sweat and hilarity and currency from his wallet and also his soul.”

“Pending Vegan,” as we discover in a flashback, is the name Paul Espeseth privately adopted after reading certain well-known polemics about industrial-scale food production and animal rights. We also learn that Paul and his wife once had a Jack Russell terrier named Maurice. They adored the dog, but Paul was put off by its behavior around his pregnant wife: “The dog had been too attentive, too obsessed with her pregnancy, curling itself along her stomach at night as if hatching the twins with its own heat.” In the opening story, “lucky” Alan died shortly after Blondy had pawed his wife’s pregnant belly; in the closing story, the family pet finds himself banished after taking similar liberties with a pregnant woman.

Banished, though perhaps not permanently. In the story’s climactic scene, during the insipid SeaWorld pet show (with “Who Let the Dogs Out?” blaring over the sound system), the emcee introduces a special Jack Russell terrier named Bingo, who suddenly bounds toward Paul. “It was their former animal,” Paul believes, “rescued once and abandoned, rescued a second time and trained, now restored to them. Bingo was Maurice, Pending Vegan understood. Like him, the dog had two names.” People return in new guises: “Life’s eternal lesson,” taught by a dog.

Lucky Alan contains a couple of openly termitic gestures. In addition to “Their Back Pages,” the collection includes “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear,” which tells of an online avatar named Jaw who “killed” another avatar called The Whom for violating and desecrating her blog by the sea. Lethem interpolates the taunts of The Whom as well as the kind-hearted posts of Jaw’s one constant reader, justiny:

O jaw dont ever leave us again like that u scared me so bad im shaking all over the place cant u see you’ve got responsive abilities now especially 2 me yr number 1 fan justiny

Does something about these blog comments (the desperate tone, the extravagantly bad grammar) faintly recall the despairing letters that Nathanael West includes in the opening of Miss Lonelyhearts — suggesting, perhaps, that “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” might operate as a kind of parodic digitized send-up of West’s high-modernist anxiety? Are the aforementioned echoes of Bellow and Fitzgerald in any way essential to Lucky Alan? “Lucky” Alan Zwelish’s death by brain tumor recalls the similar death of Caitlin Marsh (mother of the protagonist in Lethem’s Girl in Landscape), as well as the death of Lethem’s own mother, who suffered from a malignant brain tumor when the author was 13 (Lethem’s middle name is “Allen”).

Such considerations, to borrow a phrase from Herman Melville in The Confidence-Man, will prove “worth the consideration of those to whom it may prove worth considering.” Reflecting upon the diversity of critical response to one of his essays, Lethem concluded that the essay itself was akin to a “Rorschach blot”: readers uniformly found it confirmed their own preexisting assumptions about the topic, regardless of what those assumptions were or what Lethem had “intended.”

The essay in question — “The Ecstasy of Influence” (which first appeared in Harper’s in 2007) — is perhaps especially prone to misinterpretation, but Lethem has been apt to invoke the logic of the “Rorschach blot” defense in various other conflicts. For instance, when The New Yorker’s James Wood complained that The Fortress of Solitude failed to delineate the “mental personality” of Dylan Ebdus, Lethem shot back (in the Los Angeles Review of Books) that Wood’s criticism revealed more about Wood and his own “punitive parochialism” than it did about the novel. In “4,200 painstaking words,” Lethem writes, Wood had somehow failed to notice “that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility.” This ring, as far as Lethem is concerned, is “the sole distinguishing feature” of the novel. To ignore it entirely amounts to a kind of critical desertion: Wood is no longer even pretending to look at the Rorschach blot.

Lethem’s assumptions about the interpretation of literature are roughly congruous with the brand of reader-response criticism Stanley Fish outlines in “Interpreting the Variorum.” Fish contends that the reader’s (apparently individual) experience of a text is in fact fundamentally determined by the interpretive strategies inculcated by particular literary communities. Both the stability of certain interpretations over time, as well as the utter variety of different interpretations, Fish believes, “are functions of interpretive strategies rather than of texts.” Wood’s complaint (about Dylan’s lack of psychological development) stems from the fact that his critical paradigm led him to evaluate The Fortress of Solitude as a bildungsroman, which in turn predisposed him to perform a set of interpretive acts, find certain kinds of themes, break the text into specific formal units, consider it within a tradition of similar texts, and so on. This institutional framework similarly determined what Wood did not see, or at any rate what he refused to acknowledge: that at a certain point in this particular bildungsroman, the protagonist finds a magic ring that allows him to fly. Fish’s point is that our critical evaluation of any given text will radically depend upon our own education into specific interpretive communities.

What Lucky Alan underscores about Jonathan Lethem, and what sets him apart from the rest of the herd, is his ability to speak to multiple interpretive communities at the same time. From his own standpoint, Lethem simply makes strategic use of all of the techniques and tools — intertextuality, surrealism, irony, metafiction, and so on — that are at the disposal of the contemporary literary artist. Indeed, Lethem has expressed his frank bafflement at authors who flatly decline the entire repertoire of postmodern innovation. Alice Munro, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen — these authors, Lethem believes, have basically “declined the entire twentieth century (and interesting parts of several others). You’ve read our entire menu, sir? And nothing was of interest? Really, nothing?”

Lucky Alan, with its wildly different styles and modes of storytelling, is like a tasting menu. Each of these expensive morsels has been expertly prepared, and is bound to please someone in your party. And yet, regardless of the sheer variety and uniform quality of the dishes on offer, it can be difficult to ignore the elephant banging around in the kitchen.


Ira Wells teaches American literature at the University of Toronto and is the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism.

LARB Contributor

Ira Wells is a Toronto-based culture writer and the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism. He has written essays and opinion pieces for The New RepublicAmerican Quarterly, Popular Music and Society, Canada’s National Post, and elsewhere. Follow on Twitter at @Ira_Wells


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