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.