Provisionally Speaking: An Interview with Jonathan Lethem
By Ryan McIlvainOctober 16, 2016
I’d driven out to talk with Jonathan Lethem in his office at Pomona College, on a leafy handsome campus about an hour from my apartment in Culver City — or maybe an hour and a half, two hours, depending. It was the day after Labor Day, one of the worst traffic mornings of the year, apparently, but I’d actually made okay time. An auspicious beginning, I felt. I’d meant to bring it up to Lethem, but the conversation in his office had already launched. We spent a few minutes comparing how our Eastern prejudices (I’m from Massachusetts) had largely melted away in the Southern California sun. In the national consciousness, Lethem still belongs to Brooklyn, where he was born and raised and where he’s set his most famous novels, but for the last several years he’s lived and worked in greater Los Angeles. “I do think there’s something, still, sort of propositional about this place,” Lethem told me.
It proved to be a useful metaphor. In Lethem’s latest novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, an ace backgammon hustler travels the world, floating, forestalling a permanent self. Exceptionally handsome, Alexander Bruno takes for granted a certain ease in his skin, a James Bondian assurance in a tux, a comfortably fluid personality — until a massive, malignant tumor is discovered in a cavity behind his face. During the experimental surgery to remove the tumor, Bruno’s long-dormant power of telepathy (or is he imagining this?) is reawakened. He’s been flown from Germany to California, with the strings-attached largesse of a boyhood acquaintance, and now he’s under the knife of a cocky, brilliant neurosurgeon named Noah Behringer. The long surgery set-piece that Behringer stars in is masterful — funny, utterly fascinating, gruesome, with the flesh of Bruno’s face folded down from the site of the tumor like a diner’s bib. Of course, Bruno is the one being served here, and also devoured. (Lethem sometimes talks about this novel as a horror story.) When he emerges from anesthesia, Bruno’s life has been saved but his beauty permanently destroyed — now what? He takes to wandering the Berkeley streets in a white surgical mask, a Big Lebowski T-shirt that reads “ABIDE,” and a pair of warm-up pants accepted ungratefully from the same boyhood acquaintance, Keith Stolarsky, who turns out to be the commercial underlord of Telegraph Avenue.
Lethem and I began our conversation with his new book, but it quickly became clear that we’d range over his entire oeuvre, his entire career, riffing, associating widely. I wasn’t surprised, but delighted, to learn that being in the presence of this writer’s talented talk is like being in the presence of his novelistic voice — an exhilarating experience, instructive, freewheeling, earnest, sometimes confusing, intimidating, occasionally overwhelming, spirited, high-speed, funny, fun.
RYAN MCILVAIN: I was particularly struck by the Behringer section in A Gambler’s Anatomy, with the long surgery to remove Bruno’s tumor, and struck by what it does to Bruno and the novel. Bruno becomes a sort of plastic character after this. You understand how changeable he is.
JONATHAN LETHEM: I think that’s one of the subjects of the book. You can have out-and-out metafiction, where you realize someone on the page is just a construction — fair enough. But more interesting, I think, is the way that insight feeds back into self and world. You start to think, well, we are all plastic in some sense, or “propositional,” the word I just used for Los Angeles. We’re subject to rearrangement. I’m sure it will disconcert some people that Bruno feels like a different character at different points in the book, but he’s being reworked by life. There’s this sense that he still hasn’t settled into a person to be.
Is there also a sense in which you as the novelist are getting tired of stable, knowable characters? We literally peel back layers of Bruno and yet he feels more and more opaque.
Well, one form of development that a character (or a human being) can suffer — it’s not a happy one, but I think it’s real — is failed self-understanding. You can be confidently opaque, a kind of walking bluff — I think that’s Bruno’s state before the book begins. His selfhood is pegged on being gorgeous, which, as we know, is a precarious peg to hang the self on. Women talk about this more than men do, but it’s true for anyone who leads with that card — to use the language of the book.
I was just at the Telluride Film Festival, and I won’t mention names because it would be too cruel, but the tragedy of certain actresses 30, 40 years after their ingénue phase, who were given no real opportunity to become character actors … And they’re surgical victims, too, like Bruno. You know, there’s a joke about plastic surgery in this book, but if you left the tumor out of it, you could simply think of Bruno as a failed movie star who gets a surgery that destroys the game for him.
Stability is an illusion, yet people live their lives on that illusion. And then the world takes things away from you, and then demands of you that you find a self that abides, right? I mean — giant spoiler alert — Bruno kind of rustles around for a new method, but as he strips away his illusions, he turns out to find only incoherent or inchoate self underneath.
You did a reading in Los Angeles several months ago, from A Gambler’s Anatomy, and talk about plastic — you hadn’t actually turned the thing in yet. Yet in the Q-and-A, you spoke about the work in progress so fluently and confidently. Do these ideas you’re articulating about Bruno and the book begin to come as you’re writing, or are you working through them in real time, in Q-and-As and interviews?
Oh, they’re emergent. I mean, this interview is its own propositional fiction. You’re coming at me with a level of articulation — and a desire to be met at that level of articulation — about themes that are inspiring me, and asking me to look at my piece on those terms on the spot. But I didn’t understand the themes until just now — maybe I still don’t. I’m an explorer in stories. You know, the minute you ask that question I’m provoked to revert to what I think of as the John Ford/Howard Hawks model of reply: “Fuck all this analysis, I just make Westerns!”
The only way to begin writing a book — this book, for example, is to say: Wow, I’ve never written about gambling, even though I love stories about gambling. What is it that they’re saying to me? Can I talk back to them? Should I make it a poker story? No, poker’s been done. Let me try backgammon.
At the beginning of this project I was living in Berlin. I was rereading Graham Greene — I was doing a lot of rereading in the five months I was in Berlin — and I realized how deep his model had sunk into my teenage self. The archetype of the expatriate character. Or Orwell’s Burmese Days — that was another one. The emblem of expatriatism was important to me, but I’d always dealt with it figuratively. You could say that the problem in The Fortress of Solitude is that the boy is an expatriate in his own neighborhood. The image of dispossession is basic to my fiction, but I’d never dealt with it on literal terms. So I thought: Well, shit, it’s time for me to write one of those stories about the stupid American abroad.
And, as I said, stories of gambling always excited me — any time a character would go to a card game, or step up to a pool table, or arrive at a casino. Whether we’re talking about Walter Tevis’s The Hustler or all the pool players in Don Carpenter’s fiction, the early Melville film Bob le Flambeur … No?
I’ll have to add that to my personal syllabus.
Add it to your syllabus. But all that stuff just quickened my attention — I instantly cared about any character stupid enough to risk it all in a game of chance. I like the way a gambler is simultaneously at the heart of life and avoiding it totally. Even as a kid, I wanted to read Dostoevsky, but I didn’t want to deal with those giant books, so I read The Gambler.
So I knew I wanted to do a gambling story, and I wanted to write sincerely about an expatriate, and to set scenes in other countries, maybe even more than one. I was already in Berlin, so that decision made itself. Then I seized on Singapore too, pretty arbitrarily, and then built the book around that decision.
You weren’t nervous to write a place you didn’t know well?
A measure of the courage I needed came from setting a tiny sequence of Dissident Gardens in Nicaragua. And in a way, though it’s through the lens of an epistolary section, I’d written about East Germany in that book as well. It was new for me. To that point, I’d written eight novels without setting a scene outside of the United States, unless you count the Planet of the Archbuilders, from Girl in Landscape.
I thought you did that East Germany section brilliantly, by the way, not to show my fanboy cards too early.
Well, thank you. I had to work very hard on that section — I researched the hell out of it. There was a lot of heavy lifting in the process. That’s something I dread saying aloud, because anyone feeling critical of Dissident Gardens will say: Yeah, it feels like heavy lifting — it’s burdened with all your intentions and research and these ponderous historical ideas …
A Gambler’s Anatomy is a reversal from that. I tend to follow a book with a sort of antidote, the mouthwash to the previous one. But at the same time there’s almost always some way in which I semi-consciously develop some method or motif in the previous one that frees me to do the next one.
So you did that in the transition from Dissident Gardens to A Gambler’s Anatomy. Where else have you done it?
Take You Don’t Love Me Yet. A lot of people saw that novel as a bit of perverse tomfoolery between two serious books: The Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City. Now, I wouldn’t bother trying to defend that novel from anyone who finds it not charming enough to have been worth the time, but for me it was a crucial bridge to Chronic City. In You Don’t Love Me Yet, I explored my sense of how a social milieu of disconnected adults tries to forge themselves into a meaningful pocket world. It’s barely more than a sitcom situation, sure. But in Chronic City, I situated my four idiotic, self-involved characters in the foreground and an allegorical catastrophe landscape in the background, like setting Seinfeld in front of a Breughel or Bosch painting. I had to do one in order to get to the other.
With A Gambler’s Anatomy, I wanted — first and foremost I wanted to avoid the kind of conversation we’re in now —
I’m ruining everything, aren’t I?
You really are. I wanted to avoid Big Thoughts. I was interested in moving one character through a series of set-pieces, a tale. Graham Greene, as I said, came as an important reminder for me, as to how much pleasure I myself take as a reader in following that sort of doomy descent, by a lone character, through worlds he doesn’t adequately understand.
What about the Behringer section? How does that long perspective switch fit into this?
Well, exactly. You got me. No sooner had I conceived this plan for a simple, unified story, than I wrecked it by introducing this rupture, in the form of the surgeon’s perspective.
You know, you write 10 of these things and you start to notice yourself — you can’t really keep from noticing yourself. One of the things I’ve realized about my work, one of the only things all my books have in common, is that I need there to be some problem of narrative authority. The voice needs to transpose into something else. Even in a book as simple as Motherless Brooklyn, told in the first person, there comes a point where I abruptly introduce the third-person subjective account of Julia Minna. From a technical perspective, it’s a glitch, a mistake. It’s something bigger than a flaw in the carpet — it goes on for a whole chapter — and something less than a multi-perspective book, since Lionel Essrog’s first-person dominates the rest of the book. What’s that chapter doing there? I don’t know. Or maybe I do, but I can’t say. Nabokov emphasizes somewhere that the ultimate fact of human experience is that we’re stuck inside the envelope of our own skin, so we don’t have any way out into the other. Now, it’s probably fatal to pick a fight with Nabokov, but evidently I think there’s a backdoor or a rupture where other voices do get in. You can see this as being, you know, my characteristic protest.
And Bruno’s power of telepathy? Is that a potential backdoor into the other?
If he’s not imagining it, yes. There’s this possibility lurking that the reason we’re getting the surgeon’s chapters is because Bruno is somehow awake under anesthesia, that he’s looking down through Behringer’s eyes, undergoing the surgeon’s experience.
For a lot of the novel we have the sense that Bruno’s telepathy, if it’s real, is more on the level of a card trick than a superpower. I think of The Fortress of Solitude, too, where Dylan’s ability to fly can only help his friend Mingus so much —
It doesn’t help anything, really.
So you’re working with these magical powers that lack real potency …
Yeah, they’re no help at all. This may sound pretty morbid, but I do think that most of the powers that are uniquely our own are no good — which doesn’t mean we don’t have them. But we can’t save anyone; we can love them but we can’t really fix or rescue them. And anyway, we might be the ones who need to be fixed or rescued.
That’s a money line. Put that on the movie poster.
That’s my superpower: inventing nonoperative Supermen.
Can you talk about the distinction you work up in “The Ecstasy of Influence” between Termite Art and White Elephant Art?
Well, it’s a slight simplification, this binary. You can sustain analyzing things on these terms until you can’t. It’s worth being specific: Manny Farber coined the terms to gesture at what he thought the difference was between the really artistically interesting films of Hollywood in the 1950s, the Termite Art, and then the prestige pictures, things that would be nominated for Oscars, which people thought were important — these were the White Elephant films. It was a term for work that made large claims of importance and was therefore burdened with all kinds of ungraceful exposition and prescriptive social thinking, as opposed to something like film noir — which is the Termite Art — stuff that just burrowed into experience and ended up saying quite a lot more about American life and which Farber believed was more mysterious and lively and compressed and radiated more meaning because it didn’t bother trying to be important.
And at this point in your career you feel you’ve chosen a side? Is that also one of the things you’ve noticed about yourself through 10 novels?
Well, I wrote that essay because I was so perplexed … I mean, these are happy problems to have. Let’s add the disclaimer: I’m aware of the good fortune I’ve had as a writer, not only to get published and be taken seriously and have people care enough to send you out to interview me, but more, I’ve gotten to play so many different roles at different times, and to follow so many peculiar avenues. To be published at all is a privilege, to be read at all is a privilege. So, when I become self-conscious about these trajectories, I’m not complaining. It’s crucial to say that.
My situation was that I came from a sort of Red-Diaper feeling of political marginality. I identified powerfully with my father’s role as an unfamous-but-serious artist, and I loved so many creators who’d failed, in traditional American remunerative success terms — you know, Philip K. Dick, or the type of filmmakers that Manny Farber is interested in. I loved the termite position before I was old enough to have any self-conscious thoughts about what it meant. I just dug it.
I really went into writing expecting, even savoring, the idea that I’d be published marginally, neglected, and then rediscovered. I was going to be Patricia Highsmith, you know? So, when I woke up one day and realized that the way I was being published and reviewed, the way I was situated in the culture — for lots of reasons that I was completely complicit with, no one forced this on me — it looked pretty White Elephant-ish, even to me. I was really confused by it.
You’ve suffered the trauma of recognition. Now your work gets White Elephantized with all these highfalutin questions.
Yes, and I answer them! A skeptic could say: Well, if you so little identify with all of this ponderous career stuff, why do you consent to give an interview? Why are you talking right now? Because there is, at least technically, a third way beside Termite novelistic operations and full White Elephant, which is Pynchon’s way — you just don’t disclose anything except the books themselves. But it’s too late for that. It’s too late for me! I happen to be a very obliging person, so when people began to be interested in my work I wanted to meet them and talk. My defaults are set to engagement. I mean, here I am teaching creative writing at a liberal arts college. And I’ve always signed the petition when it lands in my inbox, I always join the board for the arts organizations. I actually kind of like going to writers’ conferences and sitting on panels — I know it’s really appalling to say that. You’re supposed to denounce that stuff. And maybe this does, in a weird way, come out of my growing up in a commune and with communitarian ideals: I lean toward participation.
So I participated in my own experience. I was like, yeah, yeah, I’ll be interviewed, I’ll show up for this thing. And then one day I looked up and from the outside it was perfectly reasonable to look at me the way I, as a kid, would have looked at someone like E. L. Doctorow, say — a guy whose work was well read and White Elephant-ish. As a young reader I would have said, skip those white elephants, read Philip K. Dick, Charles Willeford, Boris Vian — something more subterranean. And that isn’t necessarily to say genre. I might equally have said Beckett or Gertrude Stein. Anything but the kind of middlebrow definition that I guess, in a way, the particular nature of the success of The Fortress of Solitude settled me into. And then there I was, agreeing to write about 9/11 for The New York Times Magazine and giving endless interviews, as I’m doing with you.
And yet that’s something I so admire about Lethem as literary phenomenon, again putting my cards on the table — or even as literary-cultural phenomenon. Because you really haven’t chosen a side, have you?
Well, I’ll say this. I think somewhere between my innate and now totally defunct sense of being a marginal figure, a marginal person … I mean, here I am: the white male with tenure, two kids, the home with a pool … And yet I’m not going to lie to you and say that I identify with all of the devastating things that attach to that presently. I still feel like a stealth operator, creeping along, occasionally visible on the schoolyard and instantly subject to being reminded of my buglike insignificance and repulsiveness. What do you do with that? What do you do with those two things? I can only talk about them.
It’s the feeling Chronic City describes to some extent: I’m a Chase Insteadman on the outside but I feel like a Perkus Tooth on the inside, right? And I did get lucky. In a lot of ways I’m privileged exactly in the sense in which it’s very important at present, beautifully important, to acknowledge privilege. But what I love and care about are almost always somehow located in the cultural undertow. It’s the lost, the irreconcilable aspects of experience, including my own, that move me as a reader, and that still inform my appetite for the culture all around me.
I want to ask you about some of the writers you’re sometimes grouped with, and I can see that I’m making you uncomfortable asking you to talk about yourself at such length, for which I apologize. I don’t know if it’s the nature of the beast or —
It’s okay, it’s okay. And there’s no reason you shouldn’t make me feel uncomfortable — a good interview will. It’s just that we’re starting to stack up a lot of paraphrases of what it means to be Jonathan Lethem in the literary landscape, which is a really, truly small subject to linger on for much longer. Even if I find myself weirdly able to keep giving you different variations on the theme.
And maybe it’s weird that someone like me, or variations on me, the type of people who will read this interview, will probably be interested to hear you keep riffing.
I get it. I grew up reading The Paris Review interviews, you know. Sometimes I’d revere a writer’s interviews without loving their work. There would be something about the way they defined their sense of purpose, or their commitment to the craft, that would just be electric for me. That’s one reason I’m willing to give interviews. I’ve looked at results like Donald Barthelme’s collection of his interviews — which I could never hope to match — and I’ve thought, well, that is itself a thing. A body of utterances.
It’s a kind of live-wire essay.
Yeah, it is. But the place where my discomfort arises is in processing the fact that I’m bunched, often, with other writers, in what seems to me a fairly unmeaningful way. Well, let’s make this a little broader. I’ve spent a lot of time, as a lot of writers do, fighting my way out of boxes. In my case, it was very distinct because I’d written myself both into the hard-boiled detective box and the science fiction box, which are unusually discrete containers. Silos, even. But I knew I had other kinds of things I wanted to do as a writer. So I dutifully, diligently punched my way out of those boxes. In the process of doing so, this unmaking of the trap became an interesting subject for me. If you look at the interviews from the first four or five years of my publishing life — I’m really not suggesting you or anyone else would find that an interesting pursuit — you’d see me endlessly discussing “genre boundaries” and how to disrupt them.
How silly it looks to me now, and also exhausting. Oh, look at me, doing this so articulately! I must be very, very good at unmaking traps; perhaps I’m even doing some kind of important cultural work by helping people see that they shouldn’t construct the traps in the first place … I developed a vanity about being someone who exposes and unmakes these kind of constrictions in our perceptive framework: let’s undo the categorical imperative!
How totally humbling and ironic, therefore, when all this meets its perverse end point. You fight your way out just for the privilege of being regarded as bloated and middlebrow and boring. Right now, what’s the principal way that I’m spoken of in a passing way? I guarantee you this is the case: I’m grouped with two other writers who have the same first name I do — the Jonathans. Could there be a more arbitrary box? It’s the stupidest trap you could fall into and it’s ironclad: that is my first name.
Who’s the other one? Franzen and …?
Oh, really? I was going to talk about Chabon, David Mitchell, some others. I don’t see as much resonance with Foer.
I don’t mean that this is done by people who are actually reading the books. I mean it’s by people who are casually making jokes about our existence on the planet. It’s people saying, “Can’t tell them apart. Do I need to? Are those really different people?” Just as I, as a young reader, might have said, “Do I really need to be able to tell John Cheever and John Barth apart, or Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair?”
It just reminds you that these are conversations about not reading the books. And you can have them until you’re bored and then you can either turn on the football game or you can read the books. The book is just waiting there, waiting to be opened. And what’s inside it is not what was on the dust flap or what you heard about it or what I said about it in an interview — it’s just the book. It’s what’s inside.
Well said. But I have to say I’m a little hesitant now to ask you my last question, the carte blanche question. What would you say about the book or anything else with me out of the way?
Oh, right. This question. The ceremonial “What question didn’t I ask you?”
It may be the most annoying one of all —
No, it’s a good question, it’s a good question. I just don’t usually do much with it …
What I’ll do is tell you about this fantasy I had. You’ve seduced me very capably into indulging my self-consciousness about my situation and reflecting on what it means to be Jonathan Lethem today. I swore I wouldn’t. And so, since you’ve got me here, I’ll finish by airing another sort of meta-interview remark, which is that I had a daydream about this encounter. You’d contacted me about this interview a few months ago and it had to wait all summer — and my summer happened to be a very happy and successful retreat from this mode. I was off in the country and I wasn’t in this line of thinking at all. Yet I was quite aware that I’d come back to Claremont and that one of my first appointments was going to be this fairly extensive interview — not just some five-minute radio squib but a real interview, with all the potential to become interesting or catastrophic, you know? But because I’d had so much time to idealize you, correctly it turned out, as an interviewer who’d get me to do all the things I’d vowed never to do anymore, I developed this fantasy that it would be as good a time as any to suddenly declare it over with. To say: Now I will give my last interview ever! I’d tell you that and put the pressure on you; this would be my final statement and henceforth and forever I would be Pynchon. And it would be your job to take that and deal with it.
The last person to interview J.D. Salinger …
Exactly. And total horseshit, of course. Because anyone who agrees to as many interviews as I have is so far from ever being Salinger, let alone Pynchon, that it’s idiotic for me to still think that way. It’s really an appalling confession that I’m making to you — that I still think about silence as an option.
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