Lethem, Jonathan (Allen) 1964-
LETHEM, Jonathan (Allen) 1964-
PERSONAL: Born February 19, 1964, in New York, NY; son of Richard Brown (an artist) and Judith Frank (an activist) Lethem. Education: Attended Bennington College, 1982-84.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Richard Parks Agency, 138 East 16th St., No. 5B, New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: 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: Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, third place, and Nebula Award finalist, both 1991, both 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.
Gun, with Occasional Music (novel), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.
Amnesia Moon (novel), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1995.
The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye: Stories, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1996.
As She Climbed across the Table (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.
Girl in Landscape (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1998.
Motherless Brooklyn, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor) The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology, 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.
The Fortress of Solitude, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.
Men and Cartoons: 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, Asimov's Science Fiction, and Pulphouse.
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, 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 that "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 opined that Girl in Landscape "affectingly chronicles Pella's tumultuous journey through puberty and loss and the knock-about 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. 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 a volume of short stories as well as 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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
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; September 1, 1996, p. 69; July, 1999, Frank Caso, review of Motherless Brooklyn, p. 1895; June 1, 2003, Keir Graff, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 1710.
Commentary, November, 2003, Sam Munson, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 68.
Entertainment Weekly, April 11, 1997, p. 81; September 19, 2003, Mark Harris, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 89.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1994, p. 23.
Library Journal, February 15, 1994, p. 188; 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.
Locus, July, 1995, pp. 23, 52.
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, Malcom Jones, Jr., review of Gun, with Occasional Music, pp. 62-63; October 2, 1995, Malcom Jones, Jr., review of Amnesia Moon, p. 92; September 15, 2003, Malcom Jones, "Books: The Next Jonathan?," p. 13.
People, Kyle Smith, review of The Fortress of Solitude, p. 55.
Publishers Weekly, January 17, 1994, pp. 414, 416; November 7, 1994, p. 41; June 12, 1995, review of Amnesia Moon, p. 44; July 15, 1996, 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.
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.*