Lethem, Jonathan (Allen)
LETHEM, Jonathan (Allen)
Nationality: American. Born: New York, New York, 19 February 1964. Education: Attended Bennington College, 1982-84. Career: Bookseller, Brazen Head Books, New York, 1977-80, Gryphon Books, New York, 1982-84, Pegasus Books, Berkeley, California, 1985-90, Moe's Books, Berkeley, California, 1990-94; writer. Awards: Best first novel of the year (Locus magazine), 1994; Crawford Award for best first fantasy novel, 1995; Nebula award finalist, 1995; National Book Critics' Circle award, 1999. Agent: Richard Parks Agency, 138 East 16th Street, Number 5B, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.
Gun, With Occasional Music. San Diego, Harcourt, 1994.
Amnesia Moon. San Diego, Harcourt, 1995.
As She Climbed Across the Table. New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Girl in Landscape. New York, Doubleday, 1998.
Motherless Brooklyn. New York, Doubleday, 1999.
The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye: Stories. San Diego, Harcourt, 1996.
The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology. New York, Vintage Books, 2000.
Contributor, In Dreams, edited by Paul J. McAuley and Kim Newman. London, Gollancz, 1992.* * *
Jonathan Lethem is unquestionably one of the most interesting writers of the late twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. He began writing science fiction, publishing forty or so short stories before selling his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, in 1994. Fans and scholars of his work, however, speculate about Lethem's goals in fiction, because he has achieved crossover success, garnering praise among reviewers outside of the science fiction field.
Gun, With Occasional Music arrived with all the fanfare a beginning novelist could wish for. In this dark, funny, highly imaginative mystery, "Private Inquisitor" Conrad Metcalf is hired by a man who has been framed for murder. The corpse is that of wealthy Maynard Stanhunt, who had once hired Metcalf to follow Stanhunt's wife Celeste. Metcalf interviews various acquaintances of the Stanhunts and exchanges wise-aleck banter with gangster Danny Phoneblum and gunsel Joey Castle, who threaten him to drop the matter if he knows what's good for him.
So far we are in familiar Raymond Chandler territory, and Lethem imitates Chandler's voice with astonishing fidelity. The novel's premises, however, require much faith in the author, who proves himself capable of establishing his bizarre, dystopian setting as both science-fictional and admirably original. For one thing, only Inquisitors are socially permitted to ask any kind of question. For another, everyone is addicted to government-issued drugs such as Acceptol, Avoidol, and Forgettol. Stranger elements of this society include a judicial system based on "karma points" and a disturbing proliferation of bio-engineered animals and infants, the former developed for use as servants, the latter a delinquent class known as "babyheads." Joey Castle is a kangaroo—and he's a mean one.
Metcalf seeks the truth, making enemies of the decadent Bay Area residents and the Public Inquisitors alike, but is finally jailed in cryonic suspension as punishment for his inquisitiveness. Nevertheless, when he awakens he succeeds in solving the crime, a bleak triumph in a rapidly deteriorating society.
Gun won the 1995 Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Novel (given by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts) and was a finalist for the 1995 Nebula Award (bestowed by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America).
Lethem's second novel, Amnesia Moon, was a departure, but allowed recurrent themes to emerge. It is a road novel set in a fragmented future America; if one called it a quest novel, the quest would be for a definitive shared sense of reality. In an interview, Lethem described it as "a collage of disaster and dystopia scenarios, where I tried to dispose of all my impulses to destroy the world in one book." Where Chandler's voice haunted Gun, With Occasional Music, science fiction author Philip K. Dick's hovers throughout Amnesia Moon, with mystery novelist Cornell Woolrich and The Wizard of Oz as added shaping influences. An amnesiac loner called Chaos journeys from Wyoming to San Francisco through various communities, each of which is blind or obsessed in its own distressed way. What has happened to his world? Nuclear holocaust? Alien invasion? As Chaos uncovers pieces of his own past and self, the truth retreats into ever deeper obscurity, because he is one of the survivors who can change reality with his dreams.
These novels established Lethem as a brilliant pasticheur, as well as a master ironist and fabulist of the difficult themes of entropy and epistemology. With The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye, his World Fantasy Award-winning collection of short stories, Lethem proved that his narrative materials were not solely derivative. While alluding to classics and contemporary pop culture, he could also create nightmarish compositions in his own voice. "The Happy Man," his first Nebula winner, "Light and the Sufferer," "'Forever,' Said the Duck," "Five Fucks," "The Hardened Criminals," and "Sleepy People" are dreamlike, edgy, funny, and painful. They emulsify various themes including dysfunctional family, social, and sexual relationships with nightmarish images of journeys into hell, virtual reality parties whose guests' conversations and character assassinations are as superficial as their presences, prison walls formed of living human criminals, and devolution of humans into creatures scuttling across the ocean floor.
Lethem's next novel, the tour-de-force campus comedy As She Climbed Across the Table, homages American Book Award-winning author Don DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise as well as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Physicist Alice Coombs and her colleagues have created a void on their laboratory table, a hole of nothingness that may be a portal to another universe, which she and her colleagues name "Lack." Narrator Philip Engstrand, a professor who studies other professors, loves Alice, but Alice has fallen in love with her physics experiment.
Alice anthropomorphizes the void, calling it "him" and feeding it various objects in an obsessive need to satisfy Lack. While campus professors debate the nature of Lack and the absurdities of each other's theories—in one funny scene, two blind men are brought in to solve the quantum-mechanical "problem of the observer"—Philip strives to regain Alice's affections. Lethem expertly blends DeLillo's cool, wry narrative tone with the futility-burdened voice and plot of John Barth's 1958 novel End of the Road.
Girl in Landscape is not nearly as playful. The book is based on John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers, which starred John Wayne as the hard, Indian-hating Ethan Edwards who for years pursues the band of Comanches who abducted his niece. Ford's most sophisticated film challenges Western genre conventions and shows the dark side of the popular cowboy hero.
Lethem's frontier is a newly colonized planet, its despised natives a race known as "Archbuilders." A rich and lyrical portrayal of an adolescent girl, Pella Marsh, growing into adulthood while coping with the death of her mother, her emotionally alienated father, and her strange new home, Girl in Landscape pits Pella against Efram Nugent, the Ethan Edwards figure.
The central mystery is complex, involving the Archbuilders' strange quiescence and wistful glorification of the majority of their race, who left the planet long ago for unknown parts; the role of the tiny "household deer" in the ecosystem; and Efram's hatred for both. Though a loner, Efram rules the town by the force of his ugly charisma. He clashes horns with the Marshes when learning that they decline to take a drug that everyone else swallows religiously. These pills counteract a contagious Archbuilder virus that psychologically transforms humans in a disturbing way: "It's called becoming a witness." The settlers are secretive about the matter, displaying the obliquities, the alarums and excursions, the displacements and inarticulations of normative values that distort the fabric of a guilt-wracked society. So Pella decides to act on her own. She "becomes a witness," and learns the appalling truth about Efram's reclusivity and hatred of the natives.
Following the climax, which, in ironized Western fashion, features a shoot-out and a major character fleeing Dodge, Pella learns from an Archbuilder a truth hidden within herself. After grappling with racism, complicity, pathological secrecy, and alien mysteries, in a gentle moment of revelation the novel discloses an underlying theme that was never really concealed, survivor's guilt.
Lethem's fans remained loyal, but grumblings from other readers began to appear and echo. He was forgetting his roots. Lethem's fiction was too alloyed, die-hard science fiction readers accused, with the materials of other genres. He was getting too much attention from the highbrow list-makers of New York. The dogs growling in the manger were especially discomfited by an essay Lethem published in the Village Voice, "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction" (June 1998).
Lethem took the high road. He politely insists in interviews that he must follow his muse. His next novel showed this determination: Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics' Circle Award winner, was yet another radical departure from earlier works.
Motherless Brooklyn is narrated by Tourette's syndrome victim Lionel Essrog, who pursues the killer of the man who saved him from orphanage and life as an outcast. Frank Minna had selected Lionel and three other hapless youths from the St. Vincent's Home for Boys in Brooklyn, New York, and given them a job, a sense of self-worth, and even a family of sorts. They deride Lionel as a "Human Freakshow" because of his physical tics and uncontrollable linguistic syncopations, but he is smart enough to realize that their gopher jobs for Minna run the shady side of the street. Their primary front is a car service, their secondary front an alleged detective agency, and their real business is delivering packages for mobsters. When Lionel finds Minna stabbed to death in a dumpster, he decides with goofy but lovable determination to become a real detective.
The book can fit perfectly well onto bookstore mystery shelves, though it has been classified as that cryptomorphic creature, "Literature." Indeed, Motherless Brooklyn cries out for a new genus, one that would include novelists such as Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and David R. Slavitt. The whimsical richness of the twisting linguistic world in Lionel's mind is nothing short of genius. Every word or phrase that Lionel locks onto produces birth pangs of anagrammatizing and spoonerizing logogenesis.
Many critics have described Lethem's fiction as postmodern, as it suggests that the disappearance of a stable, universal context is the context for contemporary culture. Lethem's divided impulses and resistance to easy categorization are certainly postmodern. His unpredictable novels become unstable whenever the slightest perturbation in plotting is introduced. Every narrative factor is potentially unreal and negotiable.
One does not have to be a card-carrying postmodernist to see paradox and flux as symptomatic of twentieth-century modes of thinking. Lethem's irony focuses on disorder in the human condition itself, his novels comedies of ignorance and interpretation. He analyzes human nature with compassion, rejecting Barth's dictum that the truth is that nothing makes any difference, including that truth. For Lethem, meaning matters, values matter, human happiness matters. As Newsweek announced in its April 21, 1998, issue, Lethem is an artist to watch in the twenty-first century.
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