Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Q&A: Jonathan Lethem: Kafka & Cartoons


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review. Date Approximate.


Her body slowly adjusted to the fact of the Archbuilder, its walking and speaking, scuffling in the dust, seemingly made of scraps, stage props, but alive, cocking its head curiously like an attentive dog, moving around the truck now beside the unconcerned men. She stared, perfectly still, fighting the urge to run. In one sense the Archbuilder was nothing, a joke, a tatter, too absurd to glance at twice. It seemed pathetic that they'd honored this thing with their endless talk, back in Brooklyn. That Caitlin had wasted her breath. At the same time, the Archbuilder burned a hole in the world, changed it utterly.
     "Girl in Landscape"

HB: There's a bit in "Gun With Occasional Music" in which you have Freudians going door to door:

     A neatly dressed woman in her late twenties or early thirties stood in the doorway, and behind her a young guy in a suit and tie was walking up the steps. "Hello," she said.
      I said hello back.
      "We're students of psychology. If you're not too busy, we'd like to read you a few selections from Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents."
     . . . "Thanks no. I'm not a believer myself."
      . . . I could see the guy in the suit already sizing up the next house down the street as I closed the door on them.

HB: It's a wonderful set piece, Freudians peddling "Civilization and Its Discontents" as if they were Jehovah's Witnesses. But you don't follow up on it.

JL: I don't. It's a comic jaunt; I don't have any real agenda there except to continue creating the picture of a world where communication has been boxed into margins. I'm making fun of Freudians but also saying it's a world where human contact can only take place in a fetishized way.

In "Gun With Occasional Music", and even the first draft of "As She Climbed Across the Table", I may be prone to using every funny notion. I learned in "As She Climbed Across the Table" that could backfire. Early versions of that book were too antic and I ended up pruning it. I took about seventy pages of material out.

HB: Funny out-takes.

JL: Funny and irrelevant, B plus jokes crowding out A jokes. "Gun With Occasional Music" has that quality, too, and I had to do a similar revision, pulling out one-liners and giving the remaining material more room to breath.

HB: In "As She Climbed Across the Table" you write: "After an additional ten hours weekly, the rate changes to six additional inches per additional square hour." Guess that joke made the cut.

JL: It's the Italian physicist. I'm always looking for excuses for word play, and usually authorize one character or set of characters to be my official hplayer -- the babyheads in "Gun With Occasional Music", the Italian physicist and the blind man in "As She Climbed Across the Table", the Archbuilders in "Girl in Landscape".

In the book I'm working on now, I attempt to let the gibberish element come front and center. Instead of having a minor character or set of characters authorized to talk crazy, the narrator's going to be the one.

HB: The Archbuilders are language fetishists from the start, what with the crazy names they assume -- Lonely Dumptruck, Hiding Kneel, and Gelatinous Stand. You write: "English words seem, to an Archbuilder, garishly overloaded with meaning. One Archbuilder describes speaking English as 'stringing poems into sentences,' another compares it to 'speaking hieroglyphics.'"

JL: The Archbuilders are like writers. The human characters face issues subliminally that the Archbuilders think about explicitly. Complications about defining adulthood and childhood are reflected in the Archbuilder's language. They've got different boundaries than we do, and that kind of difference is linguistic as well as conceptual and psychological.

HB: You often leave connections and identities unclear. Who, really, are the household deer in "As She Climbed Across the Table"? And what is their relationship to the Archbuilders? Who, for that matter, are the Archbuilders? At the end you talk about the humans preparing to meeting them as if they hadn't already, all throughout the book.

And in "Amnesia Moon", the "break," as you call it, is never specified; it's a vague distortion of reality, something in the editing process, a "jump cut in a movie." You write, "Everyone is missing something."

There's a fuzziness around the edges; you don't try to settle everything.

JL: I'll take that as praise. My main difference from traditional science fiction is that I abandon the explanations. I try to leave as much of that out as possible. I transform the world in the way that fantastic literature does but omit the sometimes pedantic architecture of explanation.

The secret of "Girl in Landscape" is that I'm not terribly interested in the Archbuilders.

HB: You make them sound like living junk heaps.

JL: Duckbilled platypuses. But what interests me is the effect of their presence on the human characters and on human culture, especially on the little girl.

The Archbuilders are the Indians in John Ford Westerns, and the India Indians in E.M. Forster's "Passage to India", which is the hidden influence on "Girl in Landscape". They're the archetype of a defeated and mysterious race. They're also indebted to the Martians in Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles," who are also never really visible, but are projections of the human characters, who see, at the end of the book, that they are the new Martians, and they'll never know who went before.

HB: I don't really think of you as a writer of science fiction. I'd say you write fables.

JL: I prefer that.

HB: And that sometimes you use science fiction to that end. Your writing is very hard to classify.

JL: Intentionally. I try to be naive about literary boundary in the writing process. I'm more eager to generate those confusions than to resolve them. As I was growing up, I was always excited by work that hovered at genre boundaries.

HB: It feels like your work is beyond the issue of genre; you just don't care.

JL: At some level that's true.

HB: You inherited the meltdown.

JL: Exactly. I have the privilege of working in the new landscape that results from the existence of writers like Patricia Highsmith, Phillip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Italo Calvino, and Kobo Abe.

HB: And Kafka?

JL: He's hugely influential on my work, and a writer who is impossible to think about in terms of any category or definition whatsoever. And Stanislav Lem, and Cortazar.

You're very right to say I inherited that meltdown. It's a privilege to work in a landscape in which those issues not only don't have to mean anything any more but I think rather definitively can't mean anything any more. The sections remain in bookstores; the publishers are still hidebound by the tracks they put books on. But in a literary sense, these distinctions don't mean anything.

I'm free to write. That's all.

Before me, there were people who were struggling consciously with those problems, like Phillip Dick, and people who were breaking down the boundaries with absolute obliviousness to questions of genre, like Donald Barthelme. Almost all the American writers who interest me stumble across genre and category distinctions. The other influence comes from the international writers who never had to think about these things for a second.

HB: They weren't self-conscious innovators?

JL: I don't think when Cortazar or Garcia Marquez or Kobo Abe put a fantastic occurrence into their books they had to think about it the way an American writer in 1955 or 1965 or even 1975 had to. If the instinct for self-preservation was awake, the American writer would be reminded how enormously disreputable it was to be writing science fiction. And that was true at the same time that some of the motifs of science fiction were becoming crucial to literature at large. Both the fantastic impulse, and the interest in technology that people like Don DeLillo were going to write about, were prefigured, however clumsily, by science fiction's attempts to grapple with our increasingly technological society. The effect of technology was crying to be written about and the only attempt was in the genre.

HB: So there was a fear of contamination by science fiction, a recoil if you got too close.

JL: There had been something like a quarantine.

HB: One theme that's been mainstreamed is that of the cyborg, and of artificial intelligence, which engages all sorts of novelists, including Richard Powers in "Galatea 2.2".

JL: Right. And Joseph McElroy, who twenty years ago wrote a brilliant novel called "Plus," about artificial life, a very special book, a sort of Beckett book, written from the viewpoint of the machine.

HB: You're unlike other science fiction writers in that you don't give much indication of being interested in technology. You don't seem to give a damn about computers or the Internet.

JL: Right. I could easily mention a dozen writers more mainstream than I am who are more interested in technology than I've ever been. In American writing it's the fantastic impulse, rather than the interest in technology, that is threatened with quarantine. But historically fiction has been more fabulous than realistic. Ancient novels are all fabulous. The notion that the literary equals the realistic is only very recent.

HB: There's a strong element of satire in your work. In "Amnesia Moon" you invent drugs called Regrettol and Believol, not to mention "the ingredient all had in common: addictol."

JL: My initial impulse tends to be satiric but then I get impatient and want to flesh it out and make it somehow richer and more novelistic. So there are satiric points of entry that I try to deepen into psychological realism. Sometimes the results are problematical. There's a story called "Hardened Criminals," for example.

HB: A great story. What stays with me is the image of people who've been fossilized into the elements out of which a prison is built; they go on living, sort of, and talking in an increasingly deracinated way. That image sticks.

JL: Thank you. Of course, it's a very Kafkaesque image and the story is terribly indebted to Kafka.

HB: There's something similar in the story called "The Happy Man," where you create individual hells that people check into occasionally, negative vacations from daily life. The customized hells are powerful but your attempt to ground them in the characters' psychology -- in child abuse, for example -- seems contrived.

JL: I think in "Girl in Landscape" I found a way to bridge those elements. That's my pride in the new book, that I can negotiate it in a way that feels more serious.

HB: The writing in "Girl in Landscape" is more spare, more economical. "Girl in Landscape" parodies the ways we speak the lingo of science -- of neurology, of physics.

JL: In that it's indebted to DeLillo who analyzed, through his dialogue, the ways in which we incorporate psychological and scientific jargon, and the jargon of advertising and the media, into our self-perceptions.

And In "As She Climbed Across the Table" the human problems are worked out in line with the scientific metaphors. The physics in that book provides the solution to human problems. That's not true anywhere else in my work. "Girl in Landscape" has some fantastic window dressing, but it's my most human book; everything takes place according to the emotions and relationships. To my mind that book is secretly a Western. Or not so secretly a Western.

I was thinking very much about John Ford when I was writing "Girl in Landscape", about "The Searchers" and to a lesser extent "The Man who Shot Liberty Valence". Efram is very much a John Wayne character, Pella's father very much a Jimmy Stewart character, an Easterner going to the frontier where his idealism is rebuffed by its violent ways. For that matter, the figure of the tomboy is kind of a "True Grit" motif. That little girl perspective on the John Wayne character isn't something I completely invented myself. I was also thinking, as I said, about Forster, and Henry James; there's a bit of "What Maisie Knew" in that book.

HB: I doubt anyone brings all of this reference to bear on the book, except you.

JL: I hope not. It would be overwhelming. Of course, I think most everyone's books have these kinds of echoes in them. I'm not so sure I'm a more influenced writer than others but maybe more consciously influenced.

HB: I recently watched some Betty Boop cartoons with the sound off. They're brilliant. The transformation of things from once scene to the next obeys some wonderful logic. Then reading something you said, it hit me -- the logic of Betty Boop has to do with literalizing the image. You said you like to "exaggerate into literalness the metaphoric or thematic subliminal elements." That works for Betty Boop, as well.

JL: I concretize metaphor, I take what would be a fluid image in anther writer's realistic portrayal, and see what happens if I harden it into reality. In "Sleeping People," the people are literally sleeping their way through their lives. In "Hardened Criminals, the criminals are literally hardened. At its worst, it's a punning method. At its richest, it's the door into everything I do.

Another example: the entire structure of "As She Climbed Across the Table" is indebted to an early John Barth novel called "The End of the Road." In "The End of the Road" the narrator is a human cipher, withut emotions or attachments. He can do or say anything he likes because he's the human being as empty set. He intrudes on a very passionate married couple. Because of his weird fluid emptiness, he fascinates the woman and woos her away .

In "As She Climbed Across the Table" I literalized the metaphor, turning the human zero into a literal zero, a thing of physics, a laboratory black hole, that is irresistible.

HB: You did that consciously?

JL: I was very aware.

HB: How do you avoid being crushed by influence?

JL: The way not to be crushed by an influence is to have some other really dominant counter-influence at work. "Girl in Landscape" is John Ford's "The Searchers" told from the point of view of a Shirley Jackson or Carson McCullers tormented adolescent, the classic tomboy resisting womanhood.

HB: In "Girl in Landscape" you give your own secret away when you write: "Breach, gap, gulf, hub -- the lack was obviously an explosion of metaphor into a literal world."

JL: It's really at the heart of literature, this tension between the metaphorical and the literal. As the Archbuilders point out, every word is already a metaphor, in a sense, and even the plainest description is embedded in the structures of unconsciousness.

My curse is to be born in interesting times. I inherit a fertile confusion about high-low boundaries. You've mentioned cartoons. My work is enormously influenced by Warner Brothers cartoons. It's a big influence if you open yourself to it.

Another influence on "Girl in Landscape" is Crazy Kat. The little creatures running around spying on one another and tumbling around in the dust under these giant towers is very much a Krazy Kat image.

HB: The household deer never seem to eat or excrete.

JL: No more than Bugs Bunny.

HB: Who do you read?

JL: I read a lot more old writers than new ones. New writers are, of course, interesting to me but are too recent for to be influences. Mark Leyner is much smarter and funnier than I'll ever be but I invariably find myself wanting to see him stop being so clever and start writing some fiction. Other writers who profit from the opportunities you and I have been talking about include David Bowman, Jonathan Franzen, and Kirstin Bakis, who wrote "Lives of the Monster Dogs". There's a ton of interesting writing going on.

HB: A generation or so ago, a novelist could have considerable impact on the culture, just as fifty or sixty years before a poet like T.S. Eliot could seem central. I'm wondering if a novelists can occupy that position now, or if any particular art form can claim it.

JL: The tendency to bemoan the death of the novel just seems unnecessary. There was one brief period, with Dickens, when it was a really a mass medium. But before that and mostly after that, it's had its specialty audience. That's OK, that's not a bad thing. If you think Roth and Mailer and Bellow defined American culture, I don't think that's such a great thing. They were interesting writers but there's no reason to prefer having three or four literary giants looming over us to the current situation where there's enormous vitality in an extremely disunified way. That doesn't seem like a problem to me.

I know a lot of people who can't wait for the latest book; it's just by a bunch of different writers. I'm not sure the energy is so different. When you get older -- I'm sure this will happen to me -- young people look superficial to you. Salman Rushdie had this piece in the New Yorker where he had suddenly crossed that threshold and it was his turn to be crotchety; he said there's this terrible proliferation of first novels and it's such a horrible thing because we don't know what's good and what's bad.

What's wrong with that, for god's sake? Let a million bad novels be published. It means the activity is vital enough; people want to try and the good stuff will always sort itself out. The lasting stuff will always find its place.

HB: What about short stories?

JL: I miss writing short stories. I'd like to write more of them again. But there's a competition for your writing time, which is very finite. The stories tend to flit away into corners of the publishing culture.

HB: Like household deer.

JL: Right, like household deer, whereas novels become central things. You're nudged in a million subtle ways to favor novel writing over short story writing. And I think I'm a better novelist than a short story writer. I don't think there will be some great loss if I only write twenty more short stories for the rest of my life. That's OK. I'd like it to be more than that but I've got novels in me that I'm very excited about writing, that I'm very eager to get to. The pressure of those novels wanting to be written dictates the main shape of my writing time.


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