Sunday, March 4, 2007

Q&A: Jonathan Lethem

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

'I'm suggesting [originality] is an overrated virtue.'

By Harvey Blume | March 4, 2007

WHEN I VISITED the writer Jonathan Lethem he boasted of his new novel, "You Don't Love Me Yet," being "a profoundly unimportant book." He emphasized its irrelevance as we chatted in his Dean Street apartment, in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, on the block where he grew up and that he used as a setting for "The Fortress of Solitude" (2003), his best known novel. 

That book recounts the complex friendship between Dylan, a white teenager, and Mingus, his black counterpart, in mid-1970s Boerum Hill. The tale is both realistic -- in depicting racial tension and a neighborhood heading from bohemianism to gentrification -- and fantastic: Mingus and Dylan are able to muster superpowers. With its combination of grit and fable, the novel appears to be working its way into the fabric of Brooklyn life: Just days before my meeting with Lethem, a lawyer mounted what The New York Times called "The Fortress of Solitude" defense, arguing that her client was not responsible for a rampage he committed because, like Dylan and Mingus, he had been obsessed with comic book superheroes as a kid.

Lethem chuckled about this story, but told me he had no desire, at the moment, to enter further into Brooklyn lore and no aspiration to be the "Faulkner of Dean Street." A big reason "You Don't Love Me Yet" is set in Los Angeles, he said, is that "I know nothing about Los Angeles."

Besides being a prolific novelist and short-story writer, Lethem is an essayist (granted a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 for his varied, often genre-blurring literary efforts). In "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," in the February issue of Harper's, he mounts a sustained argument for a greater intellectual commons -- more plagiarism, less copyright -- and concludes the piece by divulging exactly where he got every idea in it, including, at times, the very words. The essay both makes a case for what Lethem, quoting Thomas Mann, calls the "higher cribbing," and provides an example of it.

IDEAS: There's a character, Carl, in "You Don't Love Me Yet" who invents slogans for a living. He seems to express your view of quotation, appropriation, and ultimately plagiarism.

LETHEM: As my rush to accuse myself of plagiarism in the Harper's piece probably shows, I don't feel much of the guilt normally attached to the practice, which seems to me organically connected to creativity itself.

IDEAS: Do you approve of plagiarism, in part, because you feel it is a form of memory, it preserves?

LETHEM: Exactly! Who would be reading Confederate poet Henry Timrod's lyrics if Bob Dylan had not appropriated them for his album "Modern Times"?

IDEAS: But there's another side to it, a helplessness. Carl can't get the slogans out of his head. And when he puts the slogans out in the world, they infect other people. When another character hears Carl say "You can't be deep without a surface," she fights what she calls "the phrase's colonizing effects."

LETHEM: [Laughing] You've just pursued the resemblance between Carl's anxieties and everyone's fear of passivity in the grip of cultural and commercial languages that invade us all the time.

IDEAS: And that's what you are getting at in your short story "Access Fantasy," about people putting on patches that compel them to go around spouting advertisements for beer, cheese, or whatever?

LETHEM: Right. I take it for granted that we are all at risk of being colonized by the languages of the marketplace. It's hard to form an alternative to those commercial languages. I'm arguing that the resilient, useful alternative will not be some rarefied area of exclusion where none of these voices are allowed in. It will instead engulf them, encompass them, rework them, repurpose them.

IDEAS: OK, but if there is, as you say, so much ecstasy, and maybe agony, of influence -- so much influence -- what is originality?

LETHEM: I'm suggesting it is an overrated value. When we're satisfied or enraptured or delighted by something -- a painting, a song coming over the radio, a novel -- we look to ratify that feeling and make it seem respectable. "Oh," we say, "it's very original, it's quite relevant."

I'm saying we don't actually care as much as we are told we ought to about originality. And I'm saying that, as a writer, I know that language is loaded with metaphor, fraught with pre-existing meanings, colonized by its nature. Language is loaded with fiction even when you try to depict reality. But the scientific and business paradigms of our culture favor things being verifiable or provable.

IDEAS: Which is why, in literature, this is the age of the memoir, or at least the pseudo-memoir?

LETHEM: But more than that, it's the age of edification. We're not very comfortable with the uselessness of art, the dreamlike fantasizing, baroque impulse, the mischievous need to make things that are not useful.

"You Don't Love Me Yet" is not going to teach you anything. It's not incisive about Los Angeles. It's not incisive about its characters because they don't have enough of a career, they're just wannabes. It's really only a book about language and life and the impulse to make art. It's about evoking feeling in the reader, I hope -- laughter, embarrassment, yearning.

IDEAS: Are you running away from Brooklyn in the book?

LETHEM: Not personally. I am living on the same block I grew up on, so obviously I'm not running away.

But as a writer, I wanted to re-engage elements of play and serendipity that characterize some of my earlier work. "The Fortress of Solitude" represented some of the most responsible writing I've done. By taking on the freight of my own and other people's stories -- a kind of collective cultural memory -- I incurred a degree of responsibility.

IDEAS: You wanted to be irresponsible in the new novel?

LETHEM: Yeah, to reconnect with an amateurish, posturing, devilish nature. I wanted to court a more occult presence, not become the secret mayor of Brooklyn.

IDEAS: You allude to autism often in your work. In the new novel, you just about declare Carl to be a high-functioning autistic. Why so much interest in autism and Asperger's syndrome?

LETHEM: It's evocative for me. I'm enticed by it

IDEAS: Not that I'm diagnosing you.

LETHEM: But don't be afraid of diagnosing me. I see Asperger's as a defining property in a lot of areas where it is denied by the participants. So I don't want to be denying it in myself.

And when I think about Asperger's syndrome I think about communities and subcultures, for example, the science fiction subculture, and science fiction conventions. What kind of people go there, to feel they have a people? When I go, it feels to me that they are bound by a thinly coded, super high-functioning Asperger's affiliation. And there's the Internet, which is a kind of autistic Greenwich Village, a place where people wander around trying to figure out whether they fit.

There are subcultures in a lot of my work. I see them as places where people try to make livable utopian subsets of the world.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge.

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