Lethem, Jonathan 1964- (Jonathan Allen Lethem)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Lethem, Jonathan 1964- (Jonathan Allen Lethem)

PERSONAL:

Born February 19, 1964, in New York, NY; son of Richard Brown (an artist) and Judith Frank (an activist) Lethem; married Amy Barrett (a filmmaker). Education: Attended Bennington College, 1982-84.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Brooklyn, NY. Agent—Richard Parks Agency, 138 E. 16th St., No. 5B, New York, NY 10003.

CAREER:

Writer, novelist, editor, essayist, and short-story writer. Brazen Head Books, New York, NY, bookseller, 1977-80; Gryphon Books, New York, bookseller, 1982-84; Pegasus Books, Berkeley, CA, bookseller, 1985-90; Moe's Books, Berkeley, bookseller, 1990-94.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Nebula Award finalist, 1991, for novella "The Happy Man"; best first novel, Locus magazine, 1994, for Gun, with Occasional Music; World Fantasy Award for Best Collection, World Fantasy Convention, for The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye: Stories; National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, 1999, for Motherless Brooklyn; New York Times Editor's Choice, 2003, for The Fortress of Solitude; MacArthur Fellowship, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2005.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Gun, with Occasional Music, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.

Amnesia Moon, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1995.

As She Climbed across the Table, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.

Girl in Landscape, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1998.

Motherless Brooklyn, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1999.

You Don't Love Me Yet, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2007.

OTHER

The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye: Stories, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1996.

(With Carter Scholz) Kafka Americana, Subterranean Press (Burton, MI), 1999.

(Editor) The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2000.

This Shape We're In, McSweeney's Books (San Francisco, CA), 2001.

(Author of introduction) Paula Fox, Poor George, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2001.

(Editor) Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002: The Year's Finest Writing on Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country, & More, Da Capo Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.

The Fortress of Solitude, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.

Men and Cartoons (short stories), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2004.

The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including Interzone, Journal Wired, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, McSweeney's, New Yorker, Tin House, Esquire, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Village Voice Literary Supplement, Omni Online, Crank!, Exquisite Corpse, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, Pulphouse, Aboriginal SF, and Pulphouse.

Contributor of essays to periodicals, including Entertainment Weekly, Paris Review, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Brick Magazine, Open Letters, Bookforum, Nerve, New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, Black Clock, Washington Post Book World, Granta, London Review of Books, Remarkable Books, LA Weekly, Village Voice, GQ, New York Observer, Tin House, Salon, New York Review of Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Harper's.

SIDELIGHTS:

Jonathan Lethem has gained a reputation as a writer whose works cross the borders of many literary genres. For example, his novel Girl in Landscape "exists somewhere in the previously uncharted interstices between science fiction, western, and coming-of-age novels," noted Elizabeth Gaffney in a Publishers Weekly profile of the author. And of the short story collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye: Stories, a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "Although Lethem is claimed by the science fiction community as one of its own, [his] work is really extra-genre, in the manner of Borges or William Burroughs."

Lethem once explained: "Everything I write is informed by genre traditions, which I love deeply. At the same time, I don't think I've written without straining against genre boundaries, and I've often violated them outright. I think my work reveals traces of an extremely eclectic reading history, and my narrative is also particularly informed by film. But my dearest models are nearly all twentieth-century Americans pursuing high art through popular forms: Shirley Jackson, Philip K. Dick, John Ford, Charles Willeford, George Herriman, and Patricia Highsmith, for instance." To Gaffney he expressed his disdain for the tendency to pigeonhole writers by genre and his sympathy for those "who had embattled careers because of genre prejudice, something I've had the good fortune to be spared. I sort of feel [science fiction writer] Philip K. Dick died for my sins."

Lethem's debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, brought him comparisons to Philip K. Dick as well as to crime novelist Raymond Chandler. In Gun, which combines futuristic and hard-boiled motifs, the hero is Conrad Metcalf, a Private Inquisitor or P.I., as detectives are known in Lethem's twenty-first-century society. Only P.I.s and the police are licensed to ask questions in this somewhat constricted world of the near-future; uttering one query in the course of everyday conversation will net the average citizen points on his or her "karma card." Lethem creates other bizarre elements in his vision of the next century: the government hands out drugs with names such as Acceptrol, Forgettol, and Regrettol to keep the citizenry under control. And, a disastrous experiment called "evolutionary therapy" has turned children into "babyheads"—overevolved, cynical humans who pass their lives in bars, while drinking, smoking, and speaking a language that only they can understand. In a botched attempt to replace the population doomed to "babyhead" status, animals have been genetically altered, but this too has gone awry, and some of the talking creatures have been given quasi-human status.

Gun, with Occasional Music begins as Metcalf is hired by a doctor to investigate the physician's wife. However, the practitioner is murdered and a peripheral character is wrongly accused. In trying to uncover the real perpetrator, Metcalf encounters some nefarious characters and an obvious cover-up, possibly involving the authorities and some underworld criminal elements. A trenchcoat-clad kangaroo named Joey Castle, in the employ of mobsters, proves especially troublesome. Metcalf's questions eventually lead to his imprisonment—six years in cold storage. When he awakens, Metcalf manages to solve the mystery by connecting the remaining clues, even though all memory has now been officially outlawed. In a Newsweek review, Malcolm Jones, Jr., called Gun, with Occasional Music "an audaciously assured first novel" and termed Lethem's storyline "merely an excuse for nailsplitting dialogue between the wisecracking Metcalf and a gaudy array of nemeses." Jones also praised Lethem's blend of science fiction and mystery, asserting that "Lethem conflated the two genres to fabricate a future that is frightening and funny and ultimately quite sad." A contributor to Axcess called the novel "a classy science fiction mystery that bristles with wit and imagination, turning both genres on their heads and inside out."

Amnesia Moon, Lethem's second novel, steers away from the conventions of noir mysteries to present a dystopic vision of the United States. Focusing on a character named Chaos, the narrative unfolds as a road trip. In search of his past identity—he was once known as Everett Moon—Chaos travels across post-apocalyptic America with a companion named Melinda. In each town they visit along their journey to San Francisco, the pair encounter a type of madness endemic to that locale, "with mass symptoms ranging from an imaginary blinding green mist to an obsession with luck," according to Carl Hays in Booklist. Lethem portrays "each stop on Chaos's journey with care … bringing to life all the horror and confusion inherent in his future world," remarked a contributor to Publishers Weekly. In a Newsweek review of Amnesia Moon, Jones stated that Lethem has emerged from the "shadow" of such influences as Dick to "deliver a droll, down-beat vision that is both original and persuasive."

Girl in Landscape is the story of Pella, a thirteen year-old coping with the death of her mother and her family's move from a nearly uninhabitable Earth to a planet just being settled by humans. Her father, a politician, is trying to create a civilization in which humans coexist peacefully with the planet's earlier residents, the "arch- builders," of whom only a few are left. He meets an antagonist in Ephram Nugent, a settler who is prejudiced against the arch-builders but is drawn to Pella. Ephram is "a maverick John Wayne-type character," according to Gaffney in Publishers Weekly; indeed, she reported, one of Lethem's influences was "his obsession with the John Ford film The Searchers, in which the John Wayne character tries to rescue a young girl who has been abducted by Indians." She quoted Lethem as saying: "It's an obsessive quest, and he's an anti-heroic, racist, angry figure. I wanted to explore what it was like to have your sexual coming-of-age watched over by this bullying man." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Girl in Landscape "affectingly chronicles Pella's tumultuous journey through puberty and loss and the knockabout society of children thrown together by their homesteading parents." Library Journal contributor Starr E. Smith deemed the novel "well constructed and plotted" but thought it "breaks no new literary ground stylistically."

In his 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn Lethem presents readers with a work of crime fiction not quite like any other. As a Publishers Weekly contributor noted: "Hard-boiled crime fiction has never seen the likes of Lionel Essrog, the barking, grunting, spasmodically twitching hero of Lethem's gonzo detective novel that unfolds amidst the detritus of contemporary Brooklyn." Lionel has Tourette's syndrome, a condition that causes uncontrollable verbal outbursts accompanied by a twisting of the language in startling, original ways. When his boss, small-time mobster Frank Minna, is killed while Essrog and his coworkers in Minna's detective agency wait outside a meeting for him, the twitching minion sets out to solve the murder. Lethem takes full artistic advantage of Essrog's illness by making him the novel's narrator. As pointed out by Frank Caso in Booklist, Essrog's "description of the investigation—complete with Tourette tics and observations—is a tour de force of language." Starr E. Smith, writing in Library Journal, noted that the novel's "plot twists are marked by clever wordplay, fast-paced dialog, and nonstop irony."

After the appearance of his fifty-five-page story titled This Shape We're In, Lethem's next novel appeared in 2003. The Fortress of Solitude is a coming-of-age novel based on Lethem's own experience growing up as a white boy in a multiracial neighborhood. The story focuses on Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. The white Dylan and the black Mingus grow up together in a tough environment, where Dylan learns from Mingus about life on the streets, complete with gang turf wars and graffiti. Despite their circumstances, the two shared a deep interest in comic-book superheroes, and developed their sense of heroism and justice from their favorite characters' four-color adventures. In adulthood, Mingus becomes a criminal and crack addict who ends up in prison while Dylan, who has gone to college, is a failed music journalist. Yet the bond between the two remains, not in any small part due to the bizarre fact that a vagrant gave Dylan a magic ring when he was a boy. Growing up together, the two boys shared the ring, which enabled them to fly and fight crime. Other powers of the ring include the ability to breathe underwater and to become invisible. Although the boys only use the ring sparingly, it ultimately comes into play when Dylan tries to get the ring to Mingus so he can use it to escape from jail.

In Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris described The Fortress of Solitude as "a flawlessly evoked, original, and vividly imagined (or is it remembered?) account of two boys, white and black, growing up in not-yet-gentrified Brooklyn in a decade of both freedom and urban rot." Commentary contributor Sam Munson was less engaged by the novel, especially the character of Dylan. "Dylan remains without shape," Munson maintained, "and so, for all of Lethem's strenuous protestations, does the world he inhabits." Max Watman had a similar objection in his New Criterion review, commenting that "Lethem wants it both ways: he wants to write a big novel and still be quirky—and I think he should be able to. I do not think he's done it. He has foiled his ambition with low metaphors, and he has foiled his fun with ambition. He has evaded his characters, and rested on their interactions, their society." Nevertheless, other reviewers gave the novel abundant praise. Writing in the New Statesman, Peter Bradshaw called The Fortress of Solitude "maddeningly readable and utterly baffling" and noted that, although, "at the end, I didn't believe a man can fly … Lethem's writing certainly does."

In addition to novels, Lethem has continues to broaden his writing to include volumes of short stories and essays. Nevertheless, as noted by Steven Zeitchik in Publishers Weekly, "there are some common threads, especially the shimmering chasm between reality and memory, between things as they were and as we wanted them to be." As Lethem explained to Zeitchik: "If you look at my books, they all have this giant howling missing center. Language has disappeared, or someone has disappeared, or memory has disappeared. I'm usually writing around a void."

Men and Cartoons is a collection of short stories. Most are set in a futuristic science fictional world in which the apocalypse hangs heavy in the background and where comic-book sensibilities inform the characters' interactions with the world. The dinner party guests in "The Vision" encounter some unusual party games at their host's house, including one specific game designed to expose a guest's hidden background as a superhero. "Access Fantasy" is set in a futuristic world where a physical barrier exists between the rich and the poor. On their side of the barrier, the poor struggle through a perpetual citywide traffic jam, living their lives in their stalled vehicles and clogged lanes. The privileged live in actual apartments, and video footage of these unattainable dwellings serve as entertainment for the lower classes. When the story's protagonist watches an "apartment on tape" that seems to portray a murder, he takes on the role of a walking advertisement so that he can cross the barrier and investigate. "Super Goat Man" finds a superhero emerging from long-term obscurity to take up a position as a professor at a New England college. "The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door" involves a rivalry between two science fiction writers, the Dystopianist and the Utopianist. The Dystopianist has created an unstoppable literary weapon to defeat his enemy, but he is shocked when it appears at his door. "No story is less than intelligent, though the author's fans will miss the deeper explorations he makes in his longer works," remarked a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "Stylistically varied, inventive, accessible, Lethem's stories offer a fine appetizer for fans hungry for his next big thing," commented a writer in Publishers Weekly. "Lethem is undoubtedly a writer of many and great talents," commented Library Journal critic Tania Barnes, who called Men and Cartoons "funny, strange, and sometimes impenetrable."

The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays contains a collection of Lethem's nonfiction pieces covering signal events and important occurrences in his life. He offers essays that discuss his early attempts at writing, the development of his creative life, his rough childhood in Brooklyn, and his attempts to deal with personal and family tragedy. He discusses his long-term love for comic books; his near obsession with and persistent defense of the western film The Searchers; and his admiration for genre-crossing science fiction author Philip K. Dick. In "13, 1977, 21," Lethem describes how in 1977, the year he turned thirteen, he saw the movie Star Wars twenty-one times in an effort to deal with his mother's death and the effect her passing had on his family. In "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn," Lethem carefully considers the Brooklyn subway stop that has evolved into iconic and near-legendary status. "Lethem succeeds in granting readers insights not only into his passions but also into their own," observed reviewer Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called Lethem's essays "persistent and persuasive, like listening to that friend with the smartest take on just about any subject under the sun." Lethem "fully and beautifully bares himself" in his essays, "admitting that he, like so many, is driven by loss," noted a Publishers Weekly critic. Gilbert Cruz, writing in Entertainment Weekly, concluded: "Lethem's trademark pop insight makes this slim volume a remarkable read."

You Don't Love Me Yet reveals the evolution and surprising redemption of a struggling alternative rock band in Los Angeles. With no name and no gigs, the band limps weakly along, barely coherent as an entity, as the band members struggle to make ends meet and find meaning in their lives. Lead singer Matthew works in a zoo and has been known to bring home a depressed kangaroo. Denise, the band's drummer, works in a sex shop, while songwriter Bedwin is a genius but a deeply preoccupied type who becomes so intent on his music that he forgets to eat. The last band member, Lucinda, takes a job with a performance artist, answering a telephone complaint hotline in a fake office set up as an ongoing performance piece. In the course of her duties, Lucinda becomes infatuated with a particularly vociferous and eloquent caller nicknamed the Complainer. Lucinda begins writing down the Complainer's lengthy but lyrical rants. His words spark a change in Bedwin, who uses Lucinda's notes about the Complainer as the basis for new songs. Energized with their new source of lyrics, the band's fortunes improve as songs containing the Complainer's words become increasingly popular. Meanwhile, the Complainer, also known as Carl, has recognized the band's appropriation of his material. In time, Carl and Lucinda meet and engage in a steamy relationship, and he demands his compensation for the use of his words: a spot as member of the band. "With minor-key brilliance, Lethem describes how alluring pop is crafted in a state of joyous tedium," observed Ken Tucker, writing in Entertainment Weekly.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Axcess, Volume 2, number 3, review of Gun, with Occasional Music, p. 106.

Book, September-October, 2003, Jerome V. Kramer, "Home Boy: Motherless Brooklyn's Jonathan Lethem Returns to the Street Where He Grew up for His New Novel, The Fortress of Solitude," p. 58, and Don McLeese, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 77.

Booklist, August, 1995, Carl Hays, review of Amnesia Moon, p. 1933; July, 1999, Frank Caso, review of Motherless Brooklyn, p. 1895; October 1, 2000, Bonnie Smothers, review of The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss, p. 321; June 1, 2003, Keir Graff, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 1710; September 1, 2004, Ray Olson, review of Men and Cartoons, p. 62; February 1, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays, p. 930; October 15, 2006, Ian Chipman, review of You Don't Love Me Yet, p. 5.

Boston Globe, March 4, 2007, Harvey Blume, "Q&A: Jonathan Lethem," interview with Jonathan Lethem.

Commentary, November, 2003, Sam Munson, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 68.

Entertainment Weekly, September 19, 2003, Mark Harris, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 89; November 5, 2004, review of Men and Cartoons, p. 89; March 18, 2005, Gilbert Cruz, review of The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays, p. 74; March 16, 2007, Ken Tucker, "Rockin' Roles," review of You Don't Love Me Yet, p. 72.

Independent Weekly, March 21, 2007, Zack Smith, interview with Jonathan Lethem.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2004, review of Men and Cartoons, p. 708; December 15, 2004, review of The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays, p. 1185; October 1, 2006, review of You Don't Love Me Yet, p. 981.

Kliatt, January, 2006, Nola Theiss, review of The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays, p. 52.

Library Journal, April 1, 1998, Starr E. Smith, review of Girl in Landscape, p. 123; July, 1999, Starr E. Smith, review of Motherless Brooklyn, p. 133; July, 2003, Nathan Ward, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 123; September 15, 2004, Tania Barnes, review of Men and Cartoons, p. 52; November 15, 2006, Donna Bettencourt, review of You Don't Love Me Yet, p. 57.

Locus, October, 1997, "Jonathan Lethem: Breeding Hybrids in the Genre Garden," profile of Jonathan Lethem.

New Criterion, November, 2003, Max Watman, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 59.

New Leader, July-August, 2003, Evan Hughes, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 27.

New Statesman, January 19, 2004, Peter Bradshaw, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 51.

Newsweek, April 18, 1994, Malcolm Jones, Jr., review of Gun, with Occasional Music, pp. 62-63; October 2, 1995, Malcolm Jones, Jr., review of Amnesia Moon, p. 92; September 15, 2003, Malcolm Jones, Jr., "Books: The Next Jonathan?," p. 13.

New York Times, March 18, 2007, David Kamp, "With the Band," review of You Don't Love Me Yet, p. 12.

People, December 20, 2004, Steve Dougherty, review of Men and Cartoons, p. 60.

Publishers Weekly, June 12, 1995, review of Amnesia Moon, p. 44; July 15, 1996, review of The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye: Stories, p. 54; February 9, 1998, review of Girl in Landscape, p. 71; March 30, 1998, Elizabeth Gaffney, "Jonathan Lethem: Breaking the Barriers between Genres," p. 50; August 6, 1999, review of Motherless Brooklyn, p. 57; October 25, 1999, Judy Quinn, "Lethem's Leap," p. 20; June 16, 2003, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 47; September 15, 2003, Steven Zeitchik, "A Brooklyn of the Soul," p. 37; October 25, 2004, review of Men and Cartoons, p. 28; December 13, 2004, review of The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays, p. 53; September 25, 2006, review of You Don't Love Me Yet, p. 41.

Time, October 11, 1999, Nadya Labi, review of Motherless Brooklyn, p. 90; September 15, 2003, Lev Grossman, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 77.

USA Today, September 19, 2005, Marissa Newhall, "Twenty-Five Earn the ‘Genius’ Title."

Washington Post Book World, March 18 2007, Joe Heim, "Who Wrote the Book of Love?," review of You Don't Love Me Yet, p. 7.

ONLINE

EW.com,http://www.ew.com/ (March 28, 2007), Gregory Kirschling, "A Novel Approach," interview with Jonathan Lethem.

Morning News,http://www.themorningnews.com/ (January 7, 2004), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Jonathan Lethem.

Ninth Art,http://www.ninthart.com/ (November 24, 2003), Frank Smith, "Key to the Fortress: An Interview with Jonathan Lethem."

Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (September 23, 1999), Lorin Stein, "Who Killed Brooklyn?," review of Motherless Brooklyn; (March 25, 2007), Amy Benfer, "Writing in the Free World," interview with Jonathan Lethem.

Tiger Beat (Vox Version),http://tigerbeat.vox.com/ (March 11, 2007), "Jonathan Lethem Giving Away Film Option to His New Novel, You Don't Love Me Yet."