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Summer/Fall 2003

From the Editor
Thom Didato

Richard Bausch
interview

Jonathan Lethem
interview

An excerpt from Project X
fiction by Jim Shepard

"Taken"
fiction by Liam Callanan

"Blood-Red Roses"
fiction by Leslie Blanco

"If You're Not a Bartender"
fiction by John Rubins

"AMERICA."
"STATES"
poetry by Jen Benka

"Sleep"
"Privacy"
poetry by Tom Horacek

"8/24/39"
"8/30/39"
poetry by Sadiq Bey

"Moral Improvement"
"Hunger's Story"
poetry by Adam Clay

"051603"
"080503"
"U2161"
"U2163"
artwork by Pamela Harris

 

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Jonathan Lethem's latest novel,

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© Knopf

The Fortress of Solitude, will soon be published by Pantheon Books.

His novel,

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© Knopf

Motherless Brooklyn, was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won The National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award.

is the author of several other novels, including

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© Doherty, Tom Associates

Gun, With Occasion Music, and

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© Random House

Girl in Landscape.

He is also the of the story collection,

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© St. Martin's Press

The Wall of the Eye and the novella

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© McSweeney's Books

This Shape We're In.

He edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence Magazine. His writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's, and many other periodicals.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Jonathan Lethem

Our interviewee utilized a nifty little-known neurological disorder to create one of the most unforgettable literary characters in recent times in the National Critic's Award-winning novel, Motherless Brooklyn. Last month, Jonathan Lethem gave failbetter the chance to ask him about his newest book, The Fortress of Solitude, along with his thoughts on superheroes, the silver screen, and the scope of the American epic novel.

*               *

Both in scope and size, the new novel, Fortress of Solitude, has taken on an epic-like quality. I many ways, this seems akin to the return of the American epic we have witnessed with the likes of Chabon's Kavalier and Clay, Russo's Empire Falls, Franzen's Corrections and even Eugenides' Middlesex. So…does size really matter? We live in the era of the three-hour movie, why now the return of the 600-page book?

Well, of course, the first thing I ought to mention in reply to this question is that each of the four books you mention were published after my work on FORTRESS was underway, so there's no question of influence. I sometimes think people forget how long it takes to write a book - in the case of FORTRESS my thinking and planning goes back at least ten years, and so of course I tend to think of it more in terms of certain long novels which were already published by that point, and which were directly influential on my ambition, and on the formal parameters involved in trying to write a big book: James Baldwin's ANOTHER COUNTRY, Philip Roth's LETTING GO, Steven Millhauser's PORTRAIT OF A ROMANTIC, Christina Stead's THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN, Samuel Delany's DAHLGREN - etcetera. Of course, I was also thinking of Dickens and Gissing and some others who took the six-hundred page novel as a given… perhaps for that reason I'm a little resistant to the notion that it's a current trend - isn't 'the big book', like the 'resurgence of the short story' or 'death of the novel' or 'corruption of youth' one of those trends which is always breaking? Anyway, I hardly relate it to the 3-hour movie (which also has a nice long history, though that doesn't excuse an extra minute in any films which are longer than they ought to be, or in books which are longer than they ought to be, etc). There's definitely a difference in the breadth of certain books - they're more generous, more omnivorous, more something to climb inside. I meant FORTRESS to be one of those, and I hope it is. But not in any bandwangonish sense.

I believe you grew up in the 1970s in a borderline Brooklyn neighborhood with artistically inclined parents. Thus, the character of Dylan in Fortress of Solitude seems to have some autobiographical sources for his inspiration. But how exactly did the character of Mingus come to take life on the page? Were there any real life sources that served as a springboard for the fictional character?

FORTRESS is spiritually autobiographical, strongly so. It's full of what I feel and know, and the backgrounds, the milieus, are certainly dependent on my experience. But the question of sources for characters isn't simple - Dylan, for instance, reflects my experience at times directly, but also that of my brother and of several close friends who grew up where I did. And though I see my own experience reflected in Dylan, I also see it in Arthur, and Mingus, and particularly in Abraham Ebdus. Mingus depends on observation, but also invention, testimony, and conversation - again with my brother, and several good friends from the neighborhood.

Brooklyn, for obvious personal reasons, has played a significant part in several of your novels. Fortress of Solitude is no exception. But you also spent the better part of decade out in the San Fran Bay area, which coincidentally, also comes to be home for Dylan, as he escapes Brooklyn to become a music writer living in Berkeley. Again, how much of your real life experience helps you recreate such a setting on the page? And do these seemingly polar opposite places -- Brooklyn and Berkeley -- share anything in common?

Besides the letters B-R-K-L-Y, you mean? Actually, I don't find those places polar opposites. I was drawn to Berkeley partly because I felt at home there, especially in the flatlands where it borders Emeryville and Oakland. And Berkeley, when I arrived, felt like a bastion of my parents' politics and aesthetics, in many ways - a chance to return to the culture of my early family life.

I've always been very interested in setting, in the effect of place on characters. But it took me a long time to begin to deal with the factual material of my own primal setting - that is to say, Brooklyn. I used settings which were more or less cartoonish and surreal in my first few books, though many of them do depict California or the desert west to some extent. And when I began to return to Brooklyn - in my life as well as in my work - I was read at last, though only gradually, to depict a more realistic and specific setting. You can see me warming up to this in the first chapters of GIRL IN LANDSCAPE, and then again in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. All preparation, in a sense, for tackling it head-on in FORTRESS.

The "motherless" concept was one which obviously had its place in your previous novel, but appears again in the new book, as both Dylan and Mingus become motherless boys. What about this idea intrigues you? And what impact -- for better, for worse -- does it have on the likes of Lionel and such?

Well, some achieve 'the motherless concept', others have it thrust upon them. I really don't know how to discuss it as an abstraction - my mother died when I was a kid, and I've written about it in a number of ways. Just about everything I've written has a kind of vast sense of something missing at the center - whether it is language or memory which is lost, or a vanished lover, or a dead boss like Frank Minna, or a literal black hole at the center of experience - and by pushing that material closer to the literal in FORTRESS I'm of course challenging myself to detail certain crucial emotional experiences more honestly, not to distance them through metaphor or symbol.

For a writer who always seems to be pushing the envelop and giving the reader the unexpected, there is one aspect of the new novel that reflects a current (perhaps continued) trend in our society -- our obsession with comic book superheroes and superpowers. It's been all the rage (books like Chabon's Kavalier…, movie adaptations of Xmen, Spiderman, Hulk, etc..) and leaving aside the current connotation of a magical ring (i.e. - "One to rule them all…"), we noticed that Dylan and Mingus have access to a magical ring of their own. What is our society's attraction to the superhero? Though not a dominant aspect of the book, your use of the concept seems to reinvent the superhero myth, much like your hilarious essay "Top Five Depressed Superheroes." Is this your intent?

Hmmm. You're right, I'm hardly pushing that envelope. But again, let me reference my remarks above, in reply to your first question - this book was conceived ten years ago. If I'd known then about Kavalier, about the Spiderman movie, about the Hulk movie, about the Lord of the Rings movie - well, I would have made a lot of money in the stock market.

I'm helpless to discuss our society's attraction to the superhero, so blinded am I to that question by my own attraction. Aeroman's career, in FORTRESS, is completely dependent on Alan Moore's WATCHMEN, and on Steve Gerber and Mary Skrene's OMEGA THE UNKNOWN. But there also was a flying guy in my neighborhood when I was growing up, who was a bit of a wino. I never got to know him personally.

I'm glad you like that essay.

Many of your novels have blurred the distinction between "literary" and "genre" writing -- whether it be hardboiled fiction like Gun, with Occasional Music, sci-fi-esque Girl in Landscape, or the noir-like mystery that was Motherless Brooklyn. Yet, the success of Motherless… (and its winning of the National Critics Book Award) granted you an entire new audience of readers, and an open acceptance by those supposed critics of the "literary" community. Do you ever scoff at those who so rigidly try to divide/discard the "genre" label from the "literary"? And how much pleasure have you taken from your success in blurring such definitions?

I reserve one hour a day, no more and no less, for scoffing - not only at those who so rigidly try to divide genre from literary, but at those who so rigidly try to start fires without kindling, and those who so rigidly try to make apple pies using only Ritz crackers and butter and cinnamon. The fact is, I used to get very involved, six or seven years ago, and before that, in questions of taxonomy of genre, and in the idea - which is ultimately a political idea - that a given writer, perhaps me, could in some objective way alter or reorganize the boundaries between genres. This was a waste of time, not least because I knew (though I could never get anyone else to agree) that there were no boundaries between genres that meant anything very deep or interesting about the books in question.

Nowadays, I've come to feel that talking about categories, about 'high' and 'low', about genre and their boundaries and the blurring of those boundaries, all consists only of an elaborate way to avoid actually discussing what moves and interests me about books - my own, and others'. What I like are books in their homely actuality - the insides of the books, the mysterious movements of characters and situations and the emotions that accompany those movements. The play of sentences, their infinite variety.

I'm very grateful to readers for finding my books, reading them, getting excited. I'm a lucky writer in many ways - that wonderful award, and the freedom I've found to write whatever the hell it is I want to write and to seemingly always find people interested in the results. The rest is philately.

The ongoing saga of potential movie adaptations of your works has been (and continues to be) much documented. Indeed, given your descriptive gifts of both person and place, most of your novels seem ripe for the big screen. When writing, how conscious are you of the given visuals created by each scene? Do you literally have your own personal movie going on in your head and therefore must merely put those images down on the page? And if so, what movie is currently playing inside that head of yours?

Yes, it's quite gripping, isn't it? In fact, several directors have approached me recently about the possibility of optioning the ongoing saga itself. I think Keanu Reeves is in consideration for the part of my agent.

I love movies, and my work has always been influenced by the movies I love - deeply, unselfconsciously, happily so. Welles, Lang, Hitchcock, Ford, Godard, Hawks, Sturges - those guys above all, but lots of others. I think narrative film is a close cousin among the arts to the novel, and the depths I experience when I re-watch, say THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, stimulate me as much as a great novel's. That said, however, I don't write with the movies in mind as you suggest. I wouldn't know what it would mean to do so. I'm glad you find the books visual, but I think if you examine the evidence you'll see that, if anything, I rather under-describe the appearance of characters - and until FORTRESS, I also under-described setting. Most of my storytelling is accomplished in dialogue, emotional description, situation, and gesture. If you asked a police sketch artist to depict one of my characters he'd be useless, since I never have done anything along the lines of 'nose wide and eyebrows bushy and filtrum particularly long and lips curled upwards" etc. What you experience visually is as much your own projection, based on the absence of physical description, as it is anything I supply.

Your question about 'putting down the movies in my head' suggests a curiosity about what I experience as I write, quite apart from issues of film or the visual. The fact is, it's much more vocal and musical, more rhythmic, more heard, than it ever is like anything glimpsed on an interior screen.

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