Negotiations: An Interview with Jonathan Lethem
Talking with a writer is a curious kind of negotiation in itself, especially when the interviewer, like me, happens to be writing a monograph on the interviewee.  Before I spoke with Jonathan Lethem on 25 May 2009, I’d interviewed one other Brooklyn writer (who shall remain nameless) as part of the research for my Ph.D. back in 2005.  Here’s what I wrote afterwards: “If one is writing a single-author thesis, one cannot help but feel some kind of intellectual stalker.  One reads every novel, every poem, every review, every autobiographical essay the prey has written, every published interview he has given, one watches every film he has made, listens to every radio programme.  Bizarrely, this voracious consumption of the work only intensifies the feeling that the author does not actually exist, or at least exists only textually, as a set of Baudrillardian simulations.” 
Now, there is much to wince at in these lines.  I hope at least that the reference to Jean Baudrillard can be put down to youthful over-enthusiasm or to the temporary love of French cultural theory only a Ph.D. can bring about.  But the general sentiments were sincere and are, I think, still valid.  What made the feelings of unreality and, dare I say, distance more pronounced at this first interview were the author’s frequent declarations that “I don’t know where any of this stuff comes from” or “I never set out with a deliberate plan.”  He was perfectly entitled to say these things, of course, and I’m sure many other writers would say them too, but for me as earnest literary scholar they only served to amplify the feeling that all my research, all my knowledge was to no avail, that there was some mysterious writerly realm from which profound ideas and perfectly formed sentences spontaneously emerged.  Don’t get me wrong, the interview was a highly enjoyable experience; after all, I got to meet one of my favorite writers, share a bottle of red wine with him and see the inside of  the kind of Brooklyn brownstone I could only ever dream about living in.  But I did leave the house thinking (to bastardize J. R. R. Tolkien, if I remember rightly), that literature was magic, literary criticism mere masonry.
My experience of interviewing Jonathan Lethem was rather different.  He is, in fact, the dream interviewee in many ways.  Only a writer fully aware of and sympathetic to the academic interviewer’s very specific agenda would take the time to send an email beforehand, warning “I tend to be imaginatively engaged and voluble participating in critical exegesis of my own works once you get me going, so I caution you to be certain you've got the outlines of your study well underway before we do any talking.”  This isn’t arrogance talking; rather it shows an awareness of how influential the author’s opinions can be and how, ultimately, all meaning is endlessly renegotiated between writers and readers.  And could it be that he actually enjoys talking to literary critics and scholars? 
Certainly, it becomes clear after just a few minutes talking to Lethem that he is not given to the mysterious pronouncements, the somewhat disingenuous denials of responsibility for the work.  He is a writer who approaches each new project with, as he has dubbed it elsewhere, “an exoskeleton of plot or concept,” a framing idea that enables him to visualize a more or less coherent fictional landscape and then run imaginative riot within it.  So his debut novel Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) consciously smashes together dystopian Philip K. Dick and wise-cracking Raymond Chandler.  As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) stems from the author’s sincere desire “to see if I could make that little machine of the academic novel function for me.”  Girl in Landscape (1998), which Lethem describes as “my first flop” (but is, for what it’s worth, my favorite of his novels, for reasons which will emerge later), is an elegant and emotionally affecting attempt at “hiding in plain sight.”  It confronts directly and “with documentary specificity” the loss of Lethem’s mother, who died from a brain tumor when he was fourteen, yet goes on to “conceal that disclosure within something that would strike people as being both a western and set on another planet.”  All of which multiplication of examples is not to suggest that Lethem’s approach is in any way programmatic or rigidly conceptualized, only that he deeply considers the worlds he creates and, to the huge benefit of the interviewer (and I know how self-regarding I sound), fully knows those worlds.  Throughout our eighty-minute conversation, I never had the disconcerting feeling that I knew the minutiae of his work better than he did.  His immersion in and knowledge of the work is combined with an almost boyish enthusiasm for the parallels and points of connection between the novels, short stories and autobiographical essays.  And he has an admirable ability to meander, to digress and to narrate extended anecdotes but still return to the original question, having shed light on that question in wholly unexpected and satisfying ways.  For example, in response to my rather lame first question about the number of kangaroos in his fiction (my attempt to hit him with something quirky and unexpected, not knowing that he’d been asked about it many times before), he launched into an entertaining story about a visit to the Los Angeles zoo with the “Mayor of Silverlake” by way of some observations on the nature of day jobs, as well as a frank analysis of his 2007 novel You Don’t Love Me Yet’s perceived failures as a rock and roll novel and as a deliberately “cavalier gesture” after the intense mining of childhood experience which accompanied Fortress of Solitude (2003) and The Disappointment Artist (2005).  It was an act of grace and generosity to dignify my question with such a detailed and thoughtful answer, but it also provided an insight into Lethem’s thought processes and into the internal coherence of his oeuvre, something which the apparent manic diversity belies, and which critics have tended to miss.
It occurs to me now that there is something of the Perkus Tooth about Jonathan Lethem.  Perkus is the real hero of his most recent novel Chronic City (2009).  A fading cultural critic with a penchant for conspiracies, an “antique manner of dress” based around silk suits, and a breathtaking marijuana habit, he is prone to what he calls “ellipsistic” moods, in which he takes a break from his vociferous critical dissections and enters a space simply “between.”  Like Audrey, narrator of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s 1990 novel Leaving Brooklyn, he has an “undisciplined” wandering eye, which functions as a sharp metaphor for the undisciplined nature of his private interrogations into culture and reality.  One of the subtle pleasures of Chase Insteadman’s first-person narration is his obsessive need to avoid the material reality of Perkus’ eye and instead to find novel adjectives to describe it, from “undisciplined” to “meandering” to (my personal favorite) “mugwump.”  Now, in light of this brief description, you might think that to compare Lethem to his fictional creation is to do him a grave disservice, so let me justify my assertion.  Unlike Perkus, the youthful-looking Lethem could not be taken for elderly.  Nor did he give me the impression of suffering from Perkus’ crippling paranoia, or indeed from his excessive drug intake.  Yet in the need to trace connections between seemingly disparate cultural artifacts, the sheer pleasure in relating obscure phenomena, and the consequent agonizing over the nature of “reality,” Lethem does share a great deal with Perkus.  And, amusingly, they’re both on Facebook; what better illustration is there of Lethem’s fascination with negotiations between fiction and reality?
Although Perkus is a Manhattanite, his desire to seek out unsavory or even just surprising truths beneath the surface of his city put one in mind of Lionel Essrog, first-person narrator of Motherless Brooklyn (1999).  In fact, negotiations between Brooklyn and Manhattan have been a recurring aspect of Lethem’s work since Girl in Landscape and I have to come clean at this juncture and admit that my initial interest in his writing was partly bound up in my fascination for the borough where he lives and my feeling that his stories, even the otherworldly Girl in Landscape, conjure its idiosyncrasies and contradictions more vividly than most.  After our interview Lethem was kind enough to take me on a walking tour of the streets that inspired Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude.   It was Memorial Day, appropriately enough, and as we left his writing studio on an unusually deserted Union Street and crossed the Gowanus Canal, I was hoping to help excavate a few memories not only of the author’s experiences writing these novels, but also of Brooklyn itself.  Lethem describes the borough as a place where “the crud bleeds up through the veneer,” where the attempts to smooth things over and start anew characteristic of Manhattan are never quite successful.  In Brooklyn, “walking down the street is a negotiation, trying to make neighborhoods out of these incoherent areas is a negotiation, and it’s undisguised.”  If The Fortress of Solitude is partly a chronicle of Gowanus’ evolution through gentrification into Boerum Hill, it nonetheless insists on the endlessly negotiated, contested nature of that evolution.  When Dylan Ebdus returns to Dean Street after his spell in California, he sees “meanings encoded everywhere on these streets, like the DMD and FMD tags still visible where they’d been sprayed twenty years before.”  These tags testify to what Lethem calls the “unfinished quality” of Brooklyn’s attempted transformations.
So on Court Street, where Frank Minna has his office in Motherless Brooklyn and which the narrator Lionel Essrog describes as “the old Brooklyn, a placid ageless surface alive underneath with talk, with deals and casual insults,” Lethem pointed out to me the long-established Italian pizza joints and bookies sitting alongside and just about tolerating the slick, deep-pocketed coffee chains and featureless multiplexes.  (A quick digression.  An hour or so later I had my own private “Lethem moment” in one such coffee house.  Sitting down with a barely imaginable frothy caffeine confection in an establishment which struck me as so very smooth, so very produced, so very now, I couldn’t help but raise a fist in delight when The Clash’s ramshackle “Janie Jones” erupted from the speakers.  Maybe the choice of track was just another considered effect, but it still suggested a kind of negotiation, right there.  I hope I can be forgiven for the pun, but it served to confirm for me how cobbled together Cobble Hill seemed to be.)  Smith Street, where Lethem took me for lunch in a Cuban restaurant, provided another example of the unpredictable negotiations we’d spoken about during the interview.  Though a number of Hispanic places remained there, this section of Smith Street, he explained, had once formed a narrow ribbon of virtually homogenous Hispanic-ness running through Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. 
In a sense, then, this Hispanic enclave became for Lethem another example of the mini-utopias that are so important in his writing.  As he explained to me, one of the questions persistently posed in his novels, short stories and autobiographical essays is “can you make a meaningful zone of operation and declare it sufficient unto itself?”  Can a community comprising soul music fans, or graffiti artists, or science fiction addicts, or anxious middle-class white kids in a predominantly black neighborhood, create and sustain a viable subcultural space of existence, united by what they passionately believe in?  And how do they prevent their esoteric subcultures from becoming normative and therefore exclusive?  One of the reasons Lethem so entertainingly and combustibly brings together literary genres – themselves zones of subcultural identification – is in order to demonstrate both the fragility of any one grouping and the need for it to show awareness of other groupings.  Any subculture has to recognise that its identity is formed through constant negotiation with other subcultures whose passions, though different, are no less sincere and no less valid.  To behave as though these others don’t matter or even exist is to suffer, to employ one of Lethem’s favourite words, from amnesia, a refusal to believe that alternative lifestyles might more than occasionally encroach upon and modify your own in surprising ways.  As the author says, a successful mini-utopia is one which has “a little more historical consciousness, perhaps, and is a little more capable of encompassing imperfection or paradox.”  This is played out on a literary level time and time again in Lethem’s work; it is why genres collide and mutate, why an adolescent coming-of-age narrative can be set in space (Girl in Landscape) and why the ostensibly autobiographical Fortress of Solitude contains a magic ring which gives its teenage wearers superpowers.  As Lionel Essrog so eloquently puts it, “Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw.”  Lethem’s work is all about the pricks; it’s about the intervention of the fantastic and the just plain weird, about disruptions of one’s cosy existence, about aliens (literal or metaphorical) entering the community you’ve worked so hard to create.
Another “Lethem moment” illustrates the point beautifully.  Our tour itinerary included the Gowanus Projects, made famous by Spike Lee’s 1995 movie Clockers.  We were strolling through the development, discussing socio-economic divisions in urban space generally, and Brooklyn’s peculiarly cheek-by-jowl juxtapositions in particular, when something caught Lethem’s attention and stopped him mid-flow.  I turned to look and there on the sidewalk outside one of the housing blocks was a large and heavy-looking golden chest.  It was probably intended for the garbage; the carrier bags and broken bicycle frames surrounding it certainly suggested it was.  Yet its ostentatious gleaming, its complete incongruity in this urban landscape gave it an unsettling sense of purpose, as if it were quite deliberately on display.  Both undeniably, irrepressibly there and utterly inscrutable, the golden chest was both an invitation to speculation and a rebuke; in this context, it became of kind of dare.  To recycle another of Lethem’s favourite phrases, it was hiding in plain sight.  Lethem’s response was a neat summary of its contradictions and its fabulous nature: “I love that surrealism.”
Lethem clearly takes great delight in these moments of visual incongruity, absurdity and challenge.  His recent fiction, in particular, is replete with them.  To cite a couple of examples: at the heart of The Fortress of Solitude, both in narrative and thematic terms, is the giant “DOSE” tag on the tower of the Brooklyn House of Detention, put there by Dylan’s mercurial friend and graffiti writing partner, Mingus Rude.  The tag is both a “masterpiece” and “a brazen impossibility”; it acquires an air of almost religious mystery through its sheer magnitude, aiming “to shock the viewer’s brain with the obvious question: How the fuck DID it get up there?”  In Chronic City the monumental artist Laird Noteless creates, in parkland near Fort George Avenue in Harlem, a massive chasm he calls, somewhat pretentiously, Fjord.  Our narrator, Chase Insteadman, describes it like this: “The chasm seemed to have been hewn out of the earth by unnatural force, the ground’s lip curling suddenly downward, bringing with it shrubs and small trees now turned horizontal to sprout from the fjord’s walls.  The artificial crevasse yawned at least fifty yards across, perhaps a hundred.”  Once again, the artwork assumes for its observers a quasi-religious aura: the two black boys who accompany Chase and Oona to the fjord demand that they throw in an “offering” like previous visitors have done.  Yet with Lethem’s characteristic, finely-tuned sense of bathos, the majority of these offerings turn out to be items of trash, “children’s toys, kitchenware, electronics, knotted plastic bags of unspecified treasure.”  Such is “the local community’s spontaneous outpouring,” and it is another of Lethem’s characteristic techniques to bring into collision the sublime, the breathtaking, the high concept with the mundane, the low-down, the quite literally trashy.  One cannot appreciate the bewildering extravagance of the golden chest without the broken bicycle sitting mockingly alongside.
What these two examples indicate is another key negotiation in Lethem’s writing: that which takes place between prose and other art forms.  One of the ways he shows off his writerly chops, as it were, is to employ ekphrasis – the description of other artworks in the text.  As a mode of literary representation, ekphrasis is curiously two-faced.  On the one hand, it appears to give voice to other modes of artistic expression such as graffiti, monumental sculpture or conceptual art.  On the other hand, it effectively silences these voices by subsuming them within the prose text.  Yet if this implies a celebration of the power of words to represent other art forms, it simultaneously and paradoxically highlights the limitations of the word.  As Lethem explains: “I’m very interested in areas of artistic practice that the novel can knock on the door and never cross the threshold.  I do very much like monumentality and endlessness.”  For Lethem, there exists art which in its sheer scale and above all in its aspiration to meditative silence presents a significant challenge to the novelist working in a medium cacophonous with words and akin to, as he puts it, the “buzzing of insects.” 
Lethem cites as one example of this inspiring monumentality Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour movie Out 1 (a work I now feel worryingly obliged to seek out, if only I had the time): “it’s a fantastic experience.  You know, ostensibly in many ways it’s in a narrative form – character, conversation, scenes, it endures through time much as a novel does (and I think narrative film has a very, very strong relationship to the novel, certainly in my experience) – but at the same time the film has sequences where, for thirty or forty minutes, actors are in a rehearsal doing an improv exercise where they only use guttural sounds instead of language.  It’s a trance, it’s like listening to the most amazing trance music – very human, and very pre-verbal and very deep and totally elusive to the novel which, by comparison, just looks so helplessly busy with language.”  In reference to the character of Laird Noteless, the author continues: “And I’m drawn to the absolute in visual arts – Robert Smithson’s Earthworks, which is an obvious point of reference for Noteless.  You know, he’s kind of – what would it be like if there was an urban Smithson that somehow was allowed to practise his work?  But also, things that a cartoonist can do and get away with, like Saul Steinberg is always drawing skyscrapers that are inverted, that are holes in the ground.  And I thought, ‘Well, what if someone made a Saul Steinberg skyscraper in Manhattan, as deep into the earth as the Empire State Building is high?’  But they’d never be allowed to. . . so I wanted to think about what if a really monumental Earthworks kind of artist was set loose in Manhattan and allowed to ruin things.” 
Although Lethem’s novels and short stories have not so far referred explicitly to 9/11, he nonetheless deploys these monumental artworks in his texts to explore the problems inconceivably horrific events pose for the writer.  So Noteless’ Fjord becomes a metaphor for the need to confront both the symbolic and material ruptures of trauma: “And of course I was thinking about the gigantic hole at the bottom of Manhattan now, where those buildings were effectively reversed.  We all live a stone’s throw from this chasm which just has this horrible authority and also invisibility.  It’s deeply meaningful but we’re always just thinking, ‘What are they going to put there?’ or ‘I can’t believe they haven’t put something there yet.’  You know, we don’t grant any reality to the hole in the ground, even though it’s been with us for pushing toward a decade. . . We don’t take it as itself; it’s only a delayed plan.” 
This gigantic hole is yet another metaphorical loss, another manifestation of the fundamental lack at the heart of Lethem’s work.  I’ve no need to reiterate how formative the loss of his mother was to him as a writer – Lethem does this himself with painful eloquence in the essays that make up The Disappointment Artist – or even to rehearse the idea that this personal loss is frequently magnified into a universal sense of yearning or melancholia in works such as Amnesia Moon (1995), a novel set just after an unspecified cataclysmic event.  However, it is worth noting the importance to the process of mourning of these negotiations between different art forms.  Dylan Ebdus’ career in music journalism, for example, amounts to a complex and ultimately failed attempt to remediate his sense of anxiety, loss and guilt over his childhood relationship with Mingus Rude.  As a bohemian white boy, he always feels on the fringes of Gowanus’ nascent hip-hop culture; he never gets a graffiti tag of his own, preferring instead to piggy-back on Mingus’, and usually spends his time at block parties worrying about getting yoked, but as a journalist he can filter these disappointments through the written word, as his “Liner Note” to Barrett Rude’s greatest hits testifies.  To return to an earlier idea, hip-hop is one mini-utopia into which Dylan can never quite ingratiate himself.  So as Lethem explains, Fortress of Solitude is on one level a bildungsroman about a kid who spends “six hundred pages testifying to the uselessness of music to his experience.”  More recently Lethem’s first foray into graphic novels, Omega the Unknown (2008), revisits so many of the same ideas as Fortress – adolescent male anxiety, growing up, alienation and solitude, the need to embrace popular culture, the arrival of the fantastic in the everyday – that it begins to feel like a remediation of that novel, and further attests to the mutually enriching yet antagonistic negotiations between the visual and the literary that are ongoing in his work.
They are in fact negotiations enacted spatially, and on a daily basis, in the rented studio on Union Street where all of Chronic City was written.  Lethem shares the studio with an artist and children’s book illustrator, and in some ways the space feels more like an artist’s studio than a writer’s.  After climbing several flights of stairs, one is greeted by the distinctive smells of the painter’s craft – canvas, acrylics, white spirit – and enters a small room with bare, though paint-spattered floorboards in which the bookshelf is evenly divided between literary texts and books about visual art.  And the impressive view across Gowanus and Boerum Hill, taking in the canal and a prominent steeple which became the inspiration for the Manhattan church tower Chase Insteadman contemplates from his apartment window, makes one appreciate the importance of visual inspiration to his prose.  It is worth remembering that it was by no means inevitable Lethem would even become a writer.  Lethem followed his artist father, Richard Brown Lethem, in devoting his creative energies to visual art from an early age.  He attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, producing paintings he now dismisses as “glib, show-offy, usually cartoonish.”  At Bennington College, Vermont, in 1982, Lethem realised not only that his radical, bohemian upbringing in multicultural Brooklyn made it difficult to relate to the privileged white kids all around him, but also that he really wanted to be a writer rather than an artist.  Dropping out of college, he headed west, eventually settling in Berkeley, California, where he lived for twelve years, working in bookshops and writing whenever he could. 
Yet as we’ve seen the influences of visual art remain, and it was remarkable during our interview how often Lethem would attempt to explain an aspect of his literary practice by employing analogies from painting.  For example, I asked him about the peculiar combination of sincerity and knowingness in his work, the fact that characters like Conrad Metcalf in Gun, with Occasional Music and Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn seem to know they are participating in genre fictions, while managing to retain an evolving, emotionally plausible relationship to their environments.  Similarly, Chronic City contains moments of absurdity – the destruction of a hamburger joint by a rogue tunnelling machine that may or may not be a tiger, for instance – which nonetheless, and despite the reader’s best efforts, succeed in being moving.  Lethem regards such moments as reflective of his characters’ simultaneous emotional investment in and knowingness about cultural artifacts: “For me it’s analogous to the layers of cultural self-consciousness that I write about, for instance, in a character like Dylan Ebdus, who listens to the music he listens to with paradigms of class and race and social positioning or social implications around the music, helplessly.  And he still has a very deep and, I would even say, organic relationship to music as I do to storytelling or to genre, but he’s in a way equally organically self-conscious.” 
Lethem went on to explain, again with reference to visual art, how this derives from his bohemian upbringing: “And maybe this has to do with my parents’ relationship to cultural practice in general, with their bohemianism, which put a lot of things in embracing quote marks. You know, ‘we like stuff without taking it straight.’  My mother relished old black and white movies, but she did that the way a pothead who also likes The Harder They Come and Yellow Submarine likes a Humphrey Bogart movie – not entirely straight.  My father – well, he was a mid-century American, fine arts painter.  What was the turn that defined his generation?  It was the turn from Abstract Expressionism, which was like a pure high Modernism, to the Pop artists, reclaiming imagery but in an ironized sense.  So I was introduced simultaneously to the notion that art was trying to purify itself and reach this exalted kind of Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, high Modernist, sublime mountain top, but that it was also somehow always going to collapse back, as Guston personally did, into bubblegum wrappers and comic books and Klansmen and googly eyes and funny marks on the page that reminded you of food and funny faces.  So I was just born into this complexity.” 
I’m only a few years younger than Lethem, and I, too, was born into this complexity.  I guess it’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Lethem’s work in the first place.  He captures so accurately the possessive attitude that men of a certain age have toward the cultural products they love, the feeling that somehow a particular band or a particular movie (in his case, Star Wars, in my case This is Spinal Tap) belongs to you and that only you truly appreciate it, truly get it.  Yet it is also perhaps characteristic of our generation, growing up as we’ve done in a world suffused with irony and pastiche, to be able to put our very nostalgia for these loved things in inverted commas, to regard them intellectually and with a knowing smile even as we appear to lose all pretence of objectivity in our passion for them. 
While I’m in confessional mode, let me offer another reason for my love of Lethem’s work.  I first read Girl in Landscape in 2003, the year my mother died from cancer.  Here was a scifi coming-of-age western, set on a remote planet and featuring aliens called Archbuilders with frond-like hair and a penchant for random, curiously poetic names such as “Hiding Kneel.” Yet as I read the novel, I couldn’t help but conclude that the very strangest thing, the most out-there novum of all, was the death of the female protagonist’s mother.  Lethem’s characteristic bringing together of genres in this case managed perfectly to capture the way in which the death of a loved one renders the entire world, and any other worlds that might exist, utterly strange, utterly fragmented, and forever incomplete.  This novel moved me profoundly, and it took this emotional jolt for me to begin to understand intellectually what Lethem was trying to do.  Even if, as Lethem wryly observes, “no one wants to read a book set on another planet,” Girl in Landscape also reminded me that I didn’t need to feel ashamed about liking science fiction. 
My final question for Jonathan Lethem concerned the status of the contemporary novel.  Were Lethem’s experiments with graphic fiction, along with his numerous references to other art forms and popular cultural texts, a way of reinvigorating a dying, or at least a residual medium in a world dominated by other forms of representation and communication?  His answer was so eloquent and so impassioned, that it deserves to be quoted in full: “I would just come down so strongly on the other side that I’ll just be very boring, in a way, by not even flirting with the question.  I’ll even take a step back and say because I write enthusiastically about popular culture and import gestures from comic books and film and ‘joke’ literary forms, that handful of facts causes me to be mistaken for something less than the extremely traditional writer that I am.  I feel it’s only honest talking to someone who’s devoting as much attention to my work as you are and has surely come to that same conclusion, to say that I know that in the history of fiction as a practice, I’m a thoroughgoing embodiment of tradition and not a radical at all. 
“I have acknowledged the fact of radical experiment and made sometimes some intertextual jokes about writing something more metafictional or experimental than I ever have troubled to do.  My work acknowledges the existence of those experiments but I’m like a nineteenth-century novelist, really.  I’m so devoted to the traditional means, I’m so in love with them – trying to gobble up the world around me by taking its measure in scenes and characters and dialogue and paragraph and plot.  Those tools are so enthralling to me.  I’m totally committed to them, and so there’s nothing about my work that I think should threaten anyone short of the mandarins who just don’t want the Fantastic Four ever to be mentioned inside a novel.  There’s nothing else I do that isn’t the strongest vote possible for the viability of everything that was invented before Modernism, and then Modernism bent and tested and mostly confirmed the use of.  And I just feel there’s no contradiction whatsoever between my interests and what the novel can and should do.”   
This strikes me as a succinct summary, almost a manifesto of Lethem’s aims and characteristics.  Like the Brooklyn that so inspires him, his work consists of endless negotiations: negotiations between old and new, between high culture and popular culture, between the nineteenth-century novel and the Fantastic Four, between the word and other means of expression and, finally, between writer and reader. 

Works by Jonathan Lethem Cited in the Article:
(1994) Gun, With Occasional Music. Orlando: Harvest.
(1995) Amnesia Moon. Orlando: Harvest.
(1997) As She Climbed Across the Table. London: Faber and Faber.
(1998) Girl in Landscape. London: Faber and Faber.
(1999) Motherless Brooklyn. London: Faber and Faber.
(2003) The Fortress of Solitude. London: Faber and Faber.
(2005) The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays. New York: Doubleday.
(2007) You Don’t Love Me Yet. New York: Doubleday.
(2009) Chronic City. New York: Doubleday.

JAMES PEACOCK is Lecturer in English and American Literatures at Keele University, UK.  He specialises in contemporary American fiction and Quakerism in American literature.  He has published articles on Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, on Brooklyn in contemporary fiction and on Quakerism in nineteenth-century American literature.  His book on Paul Auster is due out in January 2010 and he is currently writing a monograph on Jonathan Lethem.  He has recently come to realise that Brooklyn and Stoke-on-Trent are topographically not dissimilar, and this puzzles and amuses him.