In the current issue of The L, Mark Asch reviews Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. Earlier this month, Amy Steele spoke to the author about his identification with New York, his process, and his women.
The L: How have you changed as a writer in the past decade? I know you were in California for a while, so you wrote your first few novels out there, but now you are living back in Brooklyn where you grew up.
Jonathan Lethem: Actually I lived in Berkeley for a decade, which is really where I spent the whole starving artist part of my growth curve. I worked in bookstores and wrote most of four novels there and now it seems very far away. I've been back in New York City for more than a decade and because the better-known books are grounded in New York City it all seems strange and almost impossible that I was there. In fact, I was a Bay Area writer for a while. The early novels are fantastical. So there's an unreality to their setting, but my first three have all Bay area/West Coast settings and I'm very fond of that place. Ultimately I was a New Yorker in some way. There were people and social temperatures, ways of living out here in New York that I missed too much. So it's made a lot of sense to me that I'm back.
The L: What do you do differently now than when you first started?
Lethem: Well, I'm an old writer by now. I've been at this for 25 years and in a way I could say I do everything differently. I was blundering around in the dark at the start. I was 19, 20 years old and I wrote three novels on an electric typewriter, which isn't very common anymore. I think that I was trying to learn how to tell a story and so in a way the storytelling is the most prominent part of my early work. I didn't have time to be as devoted to language or deeper structure as I would have liked to be and I certainly eventually have become. I was desperately trying to keep the balls in the air, to keep the story alive and to make the characters mean something at all. And so that's very prominent in the first couple of books and by the time of Girl in Landscape, which as always felt like a watershed book for me, I began to relax that eagerness to be a storyteller and became much more committed to the characters and to the language. And I think those are the commitments that have defined what I have done ever since.
The L: Your books are filled with details. How do you keep track of all of them?
Lethem: I don't really have an answer except what may sound like a flippant one. I don't keep track of them. I just dwell inside them. Especially with a longer novel like Chronic City or The Fortress of Solitude which seem overwhelming like an ocean of detail. I always think that the idea that you can hold all the novel's contents in your mind either as a reader or as a writer is quite silly and quite mistaken. Actually a novel is an immersive medium. You can't back up, like you can with a painting, and look at the whole composition simultaneously. Anywhere you're dropped into it, you're at sea in the details and they mimic the world's sensory overload, and that seems to me a good thing. One of the things I like about Chronic City is it's got a way of mimicking the world's overwhelming endlessness. It's not a two-hour movie and it's not a painting with a frame around it and it's not a poem you can see. It's maybe more like some long opera or something where you're punched into it and you're just in that moment. So the details organize themselves into a thematic shape by an unconscious process, but if you try to orchestrate that yourself in a super-conscious, deliberate way, you'd probably go crazy immediately.
The L: You have this way of arranging words, structurally, that's almost like arranging a song—it's really wonderful.
Lethem: Well thank you for that. It's taken me along time to get to the point where I would boast about my language. It's become a primary commitment in the work. That's where the action is. The fiction is made of sentences and that is where all the music and energy is going to reside. And so I'm very consciously trying to keep a sense of a verbal or musical sense of anything I write down. I want it to be alive to the ear. That seems to be the basic sense of anything I'm doing. Nowadays it's the basic standard of what I'm doing.
The L: When you write are you approaching as a participant-observer or do you feel that you are an outsider looking in?
Lethem: Well, when it's going well, I feel like I'm a participant-observer. That's a great description of the ideal result. You live in fear of those days where you're an outsider looking in. When there's something you can't recapture or re-inhabit. For that reason I like to work very persistently. I'm not that fast a writer but the one rule I have per day is that I try to never stop, like the tortoise in the Tortoise and the Hare, I just keep writing every day. I make a total mental connection to the life of the book.
The L: Why Chronic City? Why did you want to write about a former child actor? How did you come up with the characters of Chase and Perkus?
Lethem: I'll take this backward. Well, I had Perkus before I had the rest of the book. The whole social milieu. He was a very emblematic character for me. You could say I've done characters like him before: cultural obsessives, and just plain obsessives, impractical types; and I've certainly done Bohemianism before. In a way it's where I come from. I write about characters who are artists or dissidents or who want to be part of a sub-culture. This book really came to life for me when I realized I had an urge to write about something I don't know very well and I'm not very comfortable with. I feel a lot of hostility toward it, the glamour and money that attaches to the upper stratum of Manhattan life these days—and suddenly Perkus was much more alive to me because I saw him against that backdrop. And Chase arrived almost simultaneously because I need one of those sensitive, close-observing but also shape-shifting types of narrators. He could bridge between Perkus's obsessive position and the place that Manhattan has become in this book. When you invent a narrator in a book he becomes interesting himself and becomes a subject. Chase's motives and his complicity in what was going on in the story almost became the main subject.
The L: What do you feel is the role of women in Chronic City?
Lethem: Well I'm very proud of Oona, who is maybe not a terribly likable character but she's one of the most interesting and complicated women I've ever written. Her voice makes me laugh a lot too. I think I made a character who's funnier than I am. In a way she's the only really strong woman in the book by its design. The greatest surprise in writing this book, the character I hadn't planned at all was Georgina. Given that all she was meant to do was be a walk on in the party scene, and then she ended up sticking and ending up as a foil and a kind of tonic to the masculine nature to the guys who hang out so often. She really moves me a lot. I find myself quite endeared to Georgina, and I haven't had a character announce themselves out of the backdrop and walk into the foreground of the book that way in quite a long time. She's meaningful to me. I wholly have to say it's fairly a boyish book. The male friendships take up a lot of the foreground. But I'm going to make up for that in my next book, which has a lot of strong mothers and daughters in it.
I miss the female characters when I don't have them around.
Jonathan Lethem's latest is a dizzying dive through multiple layers of Manhattan existence.
Nov 25, 2009