Gotham Gazette: Welcome to the Gotham Gazette Book Club. Our guest this month is Jonathan Lethem. Mr. Lethem has written six novels as well as various stories and articles. He has won the National Critic’s Circle award and just recently won a McArthur Fellowship, which as you all probably know, is referred to as “The Genius Award.” It’s a large cash grant with no strings to essentially say, “You’re doing a really good job at something and we’d like to have you continue doing it.”
His most recent novels have been about Brooklyn. The first one, Motherless Brooklyn, was about a private eye with Tourette’s syndrome who was trying to solve the murder of his boss. His most recent novel, which we read for this month, is The Fortress of Solitude. It is about a white boy growing up in a black neighborhood in Brooklyn, who then leaves. The novel tells the story of this one boy and also goes into the gentrification of this one neighborhood.
Mr. Lethem you wrote four novels, that didn’t deal with New York City. Then you came back, and I was wondering what it was about your home town that drew you in?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, you know, I was living in California when I first left college, and this was when I began to try to become a fiction writer, and I was 19, 20, 21, and at that point I don’t think I could’ve contended with the material of Brooklyn. I couldn’t have even come close to writing about it directly, with any sense of perspective or coherence. In a way, I was sort of on the run from New York for a while; it was an overwhelming place to have grown up, and I loved it, but I didn’t understand it, I didn’t understand how I felt about it, and so, to the extent that that material was a part of what I was writing about or going to write about, I couldn’t come at it directly. In the earliest work, as I began to experiment with short stories and novels in my 20s and slowly became a writer who was able to write stuff that people would want to read, I would set things in California or other settings that were not even very specific. I avoided New York as a topic for the most part, although there were a couple of short stories that kind of tiptoed into that material.
But on another level, a lot of what I was writing was about the same issues that I encountered growing up. A lot of my early novels, well, they’re all urban. I’m very interested, from the very beginning, in writing about cities, and people’s lives in urban situations, and I’m usually writing about class and race and culture juxtaposed against one another â€“ people getting pushed together in different combinations, groups of people, and I write a lot about aloneness or about otherness or about being an outsider.
And so, in other ways, even though I didn’t call it Brooklyn, and I wasn’t able to use that material directly, I was warming up to this stuff that I would eventually make my central preoccupation in the two Brooklyn books. After about ten years living in California â€“ at first I loved that place, and then I was sort of bored with it â€“ I was kind of exasperated with it and wanted to leave. I also wanted to reclaim New York; I felt ready to live in New York City again. I was also, quite suddenly, very ready, and very eager to write about New York directly.
Gotham Gazette: You mentioned that New York as a subject was daunting. Is there something you can articulate that was daunting about it, or was it that it was just too close to your own personal experience?
Jonathan Lethem: It was initially too immersive. It was like asking a fish to write about the ocean. I couldn’t see anything else, so I couldn’t think about it clearly. I had to go away from it to get any kind of angle of view onto those experiences. You know, it was very rich for me to consider, but it was also very disorderly, very incoherent. Until I lived in another place for a long time, I couldn’t have told you what parts of my experience and what parts of my personality were me, and what parts were Brooklyn. So, I was sort of waiting to understand that.
Until I lived in another place for a long time, I couldn’t have told you what parts of my experience and what parts of my personality were me, and what parts were Brooklyn.
NEW YORK LITERATURE
Gotham Gazette: We had another New York writer come to one of our previous meetings: E.L. Doctorow. We were talking about what it means to be a “New York writer”. I asked him whether he thought that he was a New York writer, and he said, “Well, there’s Southern literature, and there’s Western literature, but there isn’t really New York literature. And so, therefore, I’m not a New York writer.” Do you think there is something that is New York literature?
Jonathan Lethem: I might disagree with him a little bit. I think the position of someone like myself â€“ and I won’t speak for Doctorow â€“ is very lucky in a way, because we have the option of writing regionally, the way someone who’d get called a Southern writer might. Also, there’s something about New York City that’s universal. It’s a symbol, an image, and a metaphor, that is so familiar and compelling to people outside this place that it doesn’t feel like regional writing, if we’re incredibly specific about it. When someone writes about a part of Alabama or Mississippi, or if someone writes about the desert, about Nevada or Arizona, with the kind of extensive interest in the place, in the environment, in the specific culture, it feels very regional. But, I think for me, doing the same thing with Brooklyn, it doesn’t have that feeling. So I’m sort of getting to have my cake and eat it too, because New York, and Brooklyn in particular, are kind of archetypes.
But I do feel, the thing that Doctorow doesn’t: There’s a history of writing about this place that I’m participating in when I do it as directly as I did in Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude. That I’m conscious of certain points of reference, things like Call it Sleep by Henry Roth; and James Baldwin’s Another Country, and Last Exit to Brooklyn, and various other things. Certain early books by Bernard Malamud, you know these are points of reference for me, that encouraged me to delve into the material, and that I felt I was communing with, or communicating with, and replying to, while I was writing Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude. So, that is a kind of regional writing tradition, for sure.
Gotham Gazette: Do you think there are any attributes that you can pull out and say, “This is New York writing,” or even, “This is Brooklyn writing”?
Jonathan Lethem: I wouldn’t want to try to characterize it so specifically. There are things that about a number of people who I associate with Brooklyn, or with New York writing, that excite me; and that I’d like to think I’m participating in too, a kind of abundance, a kind of polyglot of sensibility. The sense of lots of cultures, lots of language, lots of different kinds of voice and personality existing in various close juxtaposition. And you can feel that as a subject matter in certain writers associated with New York, but it certainly doesn’t name them all, nor is it exclusive to New York. So, I think it’s a dangerous question.
Gotham Gazette: In Motherless Brooklyn, the characters are involved with, first of all graffiti, but also the wider hip-hop culture. And those are definitely New York art forms; I don’t think anybody would dispute that. Do you think that growing up around there, and those sorts of art forms has influenced your writing?
A: That’s interesting. One of the things I was doing in Fortress of Solitude, in some ways, with the cultural/historical parts of it, was trying to give a little bit of a time capsule, or a window into what certain schoolyards were like in 1978, when hip-hop was being invented. In a funny way, I was trying to make up for something I failed to do, which was pay any real close attention to that at the time. I was very snobbish about hip-hop culture and very eager to turn my attention to other things that felt more timeless, more highbrow, more worthy. I was inattentive to things like the birth of rap, or the debatable artistic merit of graffiti. To me, it was all sort of embarrassing. That was what teenagers were doing where I grew up, and I wanted to go elsewhere.
And of course, if you read Fortress of Solitude, you can see the character wants to go elsewhere. But he’s also paying attention, he’s also immersed, and I actually wanted to be immersed in. So the book is kind of a cheat. It’s me going back, and being a better citizen, a better teenager of Brooklyn than I really was.
But, I also was very interested, in this book, in relating the impulses that I now see when I look at, say â€“ the birth of rap music, or graffiti â€“ I wanted to relate those artistic impulses to other fragile attempts to create art that I’ve seen myself very responsive to, things like experimental film, or certain kinds of, you know, genre writing, that exist in a sort of slightly trash space between pulp and high culture. There’s a kind of relationship that you could say graffiti has to something like a paperback science fiction novel, where no one’s completely sure whether the energy they feel from it is legitimate, or disgraceful, something to be discarded. So, I wanted to bring all of these things. And of course, this is also true of popular music, of rock n’ roll, and jazz, before it was legitimated and put into the academy. So I wanted to talk about all of this stuff, kind of in one space. Even though some of the energy of that book is devoted to, you know, a kind of documentary, or time capsule, really showing you what it was like, for a few pages, at the beginning of the culture of hip-hop, the more important relationship, I think, is to just look at those things in the light of all the other art forms that the book happens to mention. You know, film and painting, and writing, and obviously music, of all kinds â€“ American popular music of all kinds.
BROOKLYN AND GENTRIFICATION
Gotham Gazette: In terms of Fortress of Solitude being a Brooklyn book, the narrative is one of gentrification. There’s the main character, Dylan Ebdus, he’s a white kid who grows up in a black neighborhood, and is sort of terrorized. And when he moves back, the neighborhood has changed a lot. Like Dylan, you grew up in that neighborhood in Brooklyn and moved away, and then you came back and found something very different. I’m interested in your take on the neighborhood’s transformation.
Jonathan Lethem: Right. Well, Dylan’s take is very harsh. If I were to describe simply the differences between myself and that character, they all have to do with how relatively isolated his experience is, how under-nourished his perspective is on race, and on the place he comes from. I didn’t have his bad luck; I was much more connected to Brooklyn, in a lot of ways. Partly because I never went as far away, or pushed it as completely out of mind as he did, but also because I was better at nourishing my friendships and connections. I didn’t fall out of touch. I had friends, and I also had siblings who stayed and with whom I was in touch continuously. So, he’s a kind of lens onto the total alienation, you know.
Gentrification, for him, made this place unrecognizable, because he sees it in extremes. I’m a little less certain than Dylan is that I can conclude that it’s all bad, or all good, or even that it’s all one thing. Because, in the end, that’s what I’ve come to feel about Brooklyn and gentrification, is that it’s always been true, it’s always been gentrifying, and it’s never going to be done. The place is always, still, a conflation of different classes and cultures. There’s something in the nature of Brooklyn that resists being totally renovated. There’s always the old Brooklyn peeking out from under the veneer that’s being laid over the top of it. Which is what I love about it, and it was already the case when my family moved there in the 60s, and I think it is still the case now.
There’s something in the nature of Brooklyn that resists being totally renovated. There’s always the old Brooklyn peeking out from under the veneer that’s being laid over the top of it.
This is not to say that people haven’t been displaced, or property values haven’t gone up; it’s a remarkable, revolutionary change in many places. But there’s so much continuity, there’s so many ways in which I walk the streets now and they’re the same. There’s still a lot of very awkward- to me, to my eye- beautifully awkward juxtapositions of different class and race and culture and economic circumstance, side-by-side. The exact boundaries may have changed. The people that were sort of wrong to think they should buy up Atlantic Avenue forty years ago are very right now. They lost their shirts being ahead of their time; well, now it’s a good bet. You know, you can tell it’s happening. There’s still, you know, a scruffiness that makes it recognizable to me. And I’ve come to see this as more of a process of flux that’s always taking place.
Gotham Gazette: Are there any particular juxtapositions that stick out to you as particularly noticeable or interesting?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, one thing that I’ve felt is that a couple of times when people have spoken to me about the book, is that they will speak as though I’ve given them a window onto a time when you had to think about what streets you walked down. And that’s completely different, and it’s not the case anymore. They’re so amazed: “Wow, you were really frightened, or you, you know, really didn’t want to turn the corner onto Wyckoff. “ And I get very frustrated with this reaction, because I think, they’re kidding themselves, that they don’t, in fact, have pre-conscious maps, that they’re not thinking about, that still function in terms of where they go in the city that they live in. And again, it may not be Wyckoff Street now; it may be four streets over.
I got to the point of frustration where I was being interviewed by a reporter from The New York Times who was speaking this way—and I said, “Let’s talk and walk.” And we walked off—I don’t know how well you guys know Brooklyn—but we walked off Smith Street, which is, in the book, of course, a place that frightens Dylan very badly, but now is extremely chic, and we walked to Hoyt and Warren and crossed Hoyt and went into the projects. And I said—and she was somebody who lived in the neighborhood, the interviewer—and I said, “You ever walk in here?” And you could see her coming up against the cognitive dissonance of, “Oh, wait a minute. I do just still flinch, I don’t think about this part of my neighborhood.” It’s like there’s a big circle of what’s okay around the projects. It’s right there.
And these same experiences are still being had in the city, that you feel like you belong on one block, and you cross the street, and you’d be completely in the wrong place. And that is New York City, and it’s still very true. And I don’t think it’s just historical. That the book describes it says I’m trying to push into visibility or consciousness the fact that this is still very true. This is still the condition of life in the city.
Gotham Gazette: At the beginning of your book, there’s this character, Isabel Vendle, sort of the evil mastermind behind turning Gowanus into Boerum Hill, and you see in the book, how she even picked the name out of a history book. Someone who actually was trying to come and couldn’t make it, made me make sure I was going to ask you if that was based at all on a real person.
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, partly. It’s funny if I suggest she’s based on this person, Heather Buckler, it’s quite unfair because Isabel Vendle is so much worse than Heather Buckler. Heather Buckler was this fascinating elderly Quaker lady who lived on our street, who did give the name to Boerum Hill. But, she was also quite wonderful in a lot of ways.
The novelist has this horrible tendency, which is called poetic license, to smash together real things with imaginary things. So, there’s a part of Heather Buckler, this grand Quaker lady, in that character, but there’s also a big part of Mrs. Haversham from Great Expectations, you know the idea of the kind of frustrated crone who manipulates the life of a young child. In the forge of my imagination—she came together with that.
One of the impulses to write Isabel Vendle was I wanted to write an old lady character, as good as the ones in Paula Fox’s novels, because I had just been reading Paula Fox. I was trying to live up to that standard. Of course, Fox’s novels are quite fierce, and many of the characters are very despicable, or unhappy types of characters, in particular, the mothers and grandmothers. So there’s some of that in there too.
But, there is a local woman who sort of picked the name Boerum Hill out of a history book. And of course it did mean something. If the area was going to be marketable to the realtors, it was going to have to have a name other than Gowanus. Now with the hipster irony about urban place names Gowanus has become this very sexy name in the neighborhood. People will call things, for instance, the Gowanus Yacht Club, kind of ironically reclaiming it. But at the time, that name would’ve been poison to anyone’s hopes to interest families in moving to that neighborhood, because it only meant a degraded waterway.
BROOKLYN NETS ARENA
Calvin Johnson: I’m curious about your take on the Bruce Ratner development, which is really right on top of the store that the first part of the book is named after.
Jonathan Lethem: Well, we probably shouldn’t spend terribly long on it, but it’s a very interesting question, and I’m not clear what I think. I haven’t been in the city continuously in the last year and a half while this has been so actively debated; I’ve been living partly in Maine. If I’d been in the neighborhood a lot, I probably would have absorbed a lot more of the details and the passions that attach to this debate. As it is right now, I feel I’m aware of them, but I haven’t grasped it. But, what I suspect is that, you know, there’s a purist instinct, which is one I relate to and understand, which kind of relates to “Don’t build Westway!” We remember Robert Moses, who was going to demolish everything, and that purist instinct is: New York is always about to be destroyed by a developer and anything is bad.
Yet, actually, of course that purist instinct has to be examined, too, because cities do grow and change. That zone is not particularly wonderful, and it’s got this got this enormous kind of nothingness in big parts of it. There are always homes that are proposed to be destroyed, but there’s great swaths of empty lots and stuff, that—you know, it’s not as if nothing’s going to be done there. Or as if you’d really want nothing to be done there, forever. So, something will probably come, right?
But, as far as I can tell, Ratner has done just the worst possible job of including community voices in the dialogue. That’s just such a fundamental error, to not begin there. It’s both offensive and naĂŻve. It’s not going to work, I think, because I think the neighborhood is going to be militant against it. The other thing to say is that all you really you know of Ratner, all that’s tangible of Ratner, is that horrific shopping mall. And if he wants to begin to negotiate aesthetics and the community’s wishes in that neighborhood, his first act would be to tear the thing down. And then, we can talk. Okay, you want to make something good; you’re already in the red, with that thing that’s there.
All you really you know of Ratner is that horrific shopping mall. And if he wants to begin to negotiate aesthetics and the community’s wishes in that neighborhood, his first act would be to tear the thing down.
But, I speak without knowing a tremendous amount, and knowing that there’s a lot to know that’s specific. The traffic prospect is frightening. And there’s a lot of other things that you can imagine, happening with that space. But, there’s a lot of money being brought in, too. This is also true of developments quite a lot closer to where I happen to live in Brooklyn, along the kind of Atlantic Avenue/ Boerum Place axis where big buildings are going up, and, of course, the park development, which has some very corporate aspects to it too. That’s a space that everyone should be entitled to use. But, there is a risk of changing this whole hour into that conversation.
REMEMBERING THE 1970s
Daniel Sangeap: I came back to New York about six years ago, and it’s a very different city, and I wondered, to what extent, Dylan’s point of view, about the old Brooklyn, the old New York as I think of it, is just really a function of him being a kid at that time, or is it a function of New York being different? The adults that are there don’t have the same fear or the same concern—which is maybe legitimate because they’re adults—but also, I feel like, New York was very different back then. The adults seem to very much more okay with where they are.
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, I think it’s more the particular characters. One of the things about the book, to say just a very general thing, is that I knew I was going to be trying to evoke feelings about history and sociology and political stuff. But I knew also that I could only feel comfortable doing it, I could only have any authority doing it in the manner of a novelist, which is through particulars, and through characters and sensory details and emotions. Not through any comprehensive: “This is what people were like then.” I’m not saying anything about what anyone generally was like. I’m saying specifically: “This is this guy, Dylan, and this is this guy, Mingus, and here’s his father and here’s his father.” And the rest comes in because we all have feelings about these things. And I do too, so it comes in. But I’m not claiming that every black kid, say, that I grew up with, or that grew up in my generation, went to jail and was addicted to crack. I’m just saying that this character Mingus had that misfortune. And, so on from there, and it would be true of the adult characters as well.
Book Club Member: In 1977, for two years, I lived at the Y at 3rd Avenue and Atlantic, and I remember that neighborhood very well. I remember Dean Street; I used to, in those days, walk around stoned a lot, and walked on streets and walked in the evening, and it really was like that. I really enjoyed the book, because it was so real. I think I even remember, the car with the stripes on it. Right, you didn’t invent that?
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, sure, there’s a lot of stuff that’s real.
Book Club Member: It was real. And, I want to give you a real Brooklyn compliment, by telling you that you are a sick motherfucker (laughter). As a compliment.
Jonathan Lethem: Make sure you get that on the transcript. (laughter)
Book Club Member: Yeah, it’s a great book.
Jonathan Lethem: Thank you, so much. As a writer I previously had only written fiction where I’d pretty much invented everything. And in this book, which was a much larger canvas than I’d ever worked on before, I wanted there to be invention—that’s what I do, I’m a storyteller—but I also thought, I could really kind of do a time capsule. I could throw a lot of stuff in there that would be, you know, in the matter of almost a documentary film. Where you just could really get to look through the window of this book, if you were interested, or if you remembered the place, and know what it was like to be on certain streets on certain days in, you know, 1977 or 1982. And I wanted to just actually see if I could bring a world back to life, a little bit. So, thank you.
Book Club Member: And I was an adult at the time.
Jeff Caltabiano: Just to piggyback on that, obviously the book is a lot about memory, and I’m kind of curious about process. How much of what you wrote — the particulars, the streets, the places the familiar spots you name — how much of that was from memory, and how much was you actually going out, walking those streets again, remembering some of those things, and writing them down?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, of course, the answer’s not going to be all of one or the other. I’m fortunate. I’m blessed with a good memory, which I think a novelist mostly has to have. Not just because you work from your own recollections, but because you need a good memory, actually, to hold everything you’re writing in mind, over the course of two or three or four years. So you need a memory just to be able to construct a whole novel, and I have a pretty good one. I’d say the majority of the details—just the sensory details and the names—were in my head at some level. Some of them had to be teased out. In the period when I was preparing to write this book, and in the first year or two of writing it, I was doing a lot of very conscious reminiscing. And of course, the more you do this, if you know—if you have any experience like this—you begin to reconstruct, and evoke, and make opportunities for even retrieving completely lost parts of your own recollection just by working on it, just by dwelling on stuff.
But then, I had a secret weapon, which is a lot of conversations with old friends, and with my brother most particularly, who was invaluable. Dylan is a semi-autobiographical character, but he’s also a portrait of a couple of guys: my best friend Carl, and my brother Blake. I had those guys with me, and so the book is, in a funny way, a little bit like a collective oral history. It’s got a secret weapon, and the secret weapon was lots of nights of reminiscing, and comparing notes. Triangulating, you know; someone would have one fragment of an impression of a memory, and someone else would have another corner of it, and then the three of us, playing off each other, well we’d suddenly understand something we’d never understood. “Oh, that guy was doing that,” you know, “Oh, that’s what that was about?” Suddenly, we’d have a consensus, and it was much more valuable than anything I could have come up with on my own.
John Guzman: When I read the book, there are three parts. The first part—maybe it was what I was going through this month, but it feels shadowy. I couldn’t put the things together. Then there was a break and that little history about rap and about Southern music in a sense. The last part, felt very smooth. I understood it, and it felt good to me. It felt like the first part was totally different from the second.
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, they’re very different.
John Guzman: I wonder, in your process, is there a hiatus between them?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, I didn’t stop, no. I continued working straight through. But, they are quite different, and a lot of people have very strong reactions about that. I mean, more often, people feel that the first half is extremely lyrical and dreamlike, and they feel rather upset by the harshness or clarity of the voice in the second part. But, I always knew that the book was going to have to have a rupture in it; to be a kind of broken book with two very different halves. I mean, we can speak of the middle section, but that’s really just kind of an interlude, that thick liner note that divides the two.
The two halves of the book are meant to represent a very different kind of consciousness. One is the lyrical, dreamlike quality of childhood consciousness when everything is sort of embraced in sensory impressions, and the second half is the quite jaded quality of his adult life; Dylan is a very jaded character — harsh, unforgiving, un-self-forgiving. And, you know, I myself missed the first half of the book when I moved on to the second half, because it had been so embracing.
It’s very paradoxical, because it seems like a lot of terrible things happen to the boys, but you still feel there’s something golden about that time and that street, whereas Dylan is so contemptible when you meet him as an adult. He seems so bitter, and his sense of—his imagination seems so dwindled, so pinched in many ways. But, then again, his intelligence is very acute, and he’s working very hard to put all of the difficult things he knows into a meaningful context, so that’s a trade-off, you know. He’s confused as a child. He’s more lovable, but he’s more at the mercy of his experience, and in the second half he’s beginning to fight his way through those confusions or traumas. Maybe, by the end, he becomes likable again. I hope so.
But I knew, anyway, that I was going to have to put my reader through this weird break, this rupture, because I wanted to show this thing that I felt so strongly in my own experience, and in the experience of people knew, that I had never seen a novel quite demonstrate. Which is, the way childhood experience can seem both very close at hand, like it’s with you all the time, and simultaneously far away. And so, the book itself had to represent that in a way. The difference in the voice. Even Dylan, as an adult, all he seems to think about is growing up with Mingus. But, you can still feel from the book, from the voice, that everything’s changed. He could never get back to that golden place.
Rhonda Matthews: We read it in our book group, and we felt that you captured the childhood really well that way. That’s one of the discussions we had, how it’s so confusing in the beginning with all these characters, and it’s kind of how it is when you’re a child. You don’t know who’s important, because there’s all these people in your life. And then — this is me speaking —what made you put in that superhero part? Everything we’ve discussed has been very concrete and autobiographical, and then there’s this piece that comes in out there, that—we almost all questioned, did that even really happen, or is that fantasy? And then according to how you wrote it, it really did happen, because it’s very integral to the end of the book.
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, well, it’s another thing; in a way a leap I asked my readers to make, a difficult aspect of the book. But, for me it was very important in a way that is hard to completely express. It was an intuitive choice. But, I think because I was working with so much memory material, so much that is concrete, the city, the history, my own personal accounts, my friends’, and relatives’ personal accounts, that I also had something in the book that was unmistakably symbolic, metaphorical, fictional. This would totally would push the book out of being any kind of memoir, or any kind of history, and into the world of imagination. Because, to me, that’s in a way, where life occurs, as a juncture of literal experience and the dream life; the world of the symbolic, where language and metaphor kind of—and memory—kind of alters our experience. And wishful thinking kind of alters our experience.
So the superhero thing, for me was a way of describing parts of Dylan and Mingus’ hearts, parts of their experience, that literal descriptions couldn’t get to: the urge to become something totally new, the urge to transform themselves, to transcend where they were from. You know, in some ways, it seemed like a very embarrassing, very obvious metaphor. But I thought: this is a book where I shouldn’t be subtle. I should go ahead and grab on to the most extreme, and provocative, and blatant kind of image. And the idea, that every teenager is a kind of attempted superhero, trying to grow, trying to become something more than their families, or their neighborhoods, or their experience tells them they can be. And for me, this idea of the superhero was a very rich way to talk about that stuff. But, it’s also me having a kind of fun that I like to have, of making the reader go into a strange world.
Ronda Matthews: You were saying you weren’t isolated, you had these other people to go to. And throughout the entire book, Dylan is so isolated, and one of the things I was thinking was, doesn’t he have grandparents, he doesn’t have cousins, he has no one. There is never a time when he’s in a group. He even goes to Stuyvesant and still feels like an outsider. What made you want a character that was so isolated, when—did you feel that way?
Jonathan Lethem: This is how fiction works, is you exaggerate aspects of life to make them more visible. I knew I was writing a book about feelings of isolation, and of otherness, and of disenfranchisement, so I made my character, in some ways, absurdly isolated. I mean, once you start pointing it out, yeah his inability to connect is almost exasperating: “Come on, you must have had one good girlfriend”, or, you know, “Why can’t you relate to anyone?” But I wanted to write about the part of childhood, the part of experience, that I think everyone identifies with, even if they, like me, have many more tools for connection than say, Dylan Ebdus. But everyone, I think, feels this as some level of their being. Part of their experience of childhood is, “I’m not from here.” And that’s why orphan stories are popular. I mean, if you think about how many great characters in fiction, from Dickens to The Prince in the Pauperr, to fairy tales, are children who are not really from where they’re from—they’re displaced, or they’re orphans, or they’re kidnapped—Why is this such a popular image? Well, it’s because it describes something about the way everybody feels about growing up, even though most of us do grow up in families and with friends, where we do, more or less, belong.
Gotham Gazette: One of the sort of biggest points of isolation for Dylan is obviously race, and it struck me that this is a kid that seemed to have very clear-cut ideas of how race played out from the time he was seven years old. And I was wondering if race played such a large role so early in your childhood.
Jonathan Lethem: The central situation that I thrust Dylan is one that comes out of my experience: of being a kind of reverse minority, being one of very few white kids in a neighborhood that was predominantly black and Hispanic, and yet knowing—as it was impossible not to know—that you were part of a larger majority. In the end, the roles were going to flip, or you could find places that were available to you where you were going to be part of the dominant majority. But that didn’t necessarily help you in sixth grade to know that. So it was a very odd dilemma, and it was what I wanted to write about, so I put the character into the cross-hairs of this.
But again, just as I have said about other aspects of Dylan’s experience, I sort of disequipped him. There are many senses in which I was a little luckier. I had other kinds of perspectives, inflections, possibilities, available to me to keep it from being quite so totally stark. But what we have in common is that this situation, and the specificity of it, made, not just me, and not just Dylan, but, really, all the kids—black, white, Hispanic—that I grew up with, unusually conscious of race issues. We couldn’t have articulated what we were conscious of. We weren’t happy about them, or comfortable with them. But in a weird way, everybody I know, who I grew up with, and I talk to now, now that we can reminisce, exhibits this quality of having been thinking about race, as a kid, well before you would expect kids to think about such things.
It was just something about the mosaic of that neighborhood, and I think the times and the culture, that made it very likely that every kid was forced to be a little bit of a sort of social theorist at some level. Partly for social survival, but partly because it was in the air. The thing about the early â€70s, is that the Civil Right Era had just — well, you don’t want to say “shot it’s wad”— crashed on shore, and we were all looking at what had washed up. And there was so much success and so much failure at the same time, which was bewildering. The Jim Crow laws were changed, and things were speak able in our culture that had been unspeakable, that had been taboo even to talk about.
The Civil Right Era had just crashed on shore, and we were all looking at what had washed up. And there was so much success and so much failure at the same time, which was bewildering.
It was such a remarkable transformation. Yet, by the mid-’70s, and certainly by the end of the â€70s for the most part the black population in America was kind of a designated under-class. The economic disenfranchisement was just as bitter a fate as Jim Crow laws, in some ways. Well, this is confusing, to be told, “Your parents grew up in a racist society, but we just took care of that, now everything’s going to be great,” and then to see that somehow, you were the first people who had to admit to each other—look each other in the eyes and say—it’s still unfair, “I’m going to get to go to college; you’re not.”
This was very vivid; again, it was impossible to describe. So the consciousness of it was there, and was being wrestled with in very strange ways. I know every kid goes through bullying, and in every place, there’s an aspect of making fun of you for whether you’re the short, or the fat, or the differently colored — difference is something that bullying makes easy use of. But in Brooklyn, in the â€70s, it seems generally true—not just my mistake, or Dylan’s mistake—that at some level, the kind of racist-tinged taunting that went with being bullied—being a victim or a perpetrator of bullying back then, had a quality of being a negotiation over issues that were also being negotiated by the adults in the neighborhood. It was loaded, fraught bullying. It wasn’t just, “Oh, I’m bigger than you, I’ll knock you down, and oh, you happen to be white, so I’ll call you white.” It contained with it, some kind of description—that seems incredible in a way, but there was some kind of description of, “Okay, my people used to be very afraid, because we would get lynched. And now we’re not afraid anymore because we’ve got more power, or we’re more articulate. There’s been a Black Power movement; we’re allowed to be assertive. But, we’re still under your thumb in other ways, so we’re going to take it out on you.” You know, there was meaning buried in it, which was very awkward to be confronted with.
Gotham Gazette: In the very first passage of your book, you mention that “White people are coming back to Dean Street.” Obviously, gentrification and race go hand-in-hand, and I wondering if there was also an aspect of, by having white people here, they’re sort of invading the neighborhood? Even if you didn’t feel that at the time, if you can look back and kind of see that.
Jonathan Lethem: Oh, sure. I mean, it meant all of those things at once. And that’s the thing: it’s very uncomfortable stuff to talk about. But I knew just as I had to make the superhero a ridiculously obvious symbol, what I needed to do was push this stuff into visibility. Not be polite, or deferential, or avoid it, but to say, every kid is sort of trying to become a superhero. With the race stuff I had to make sure that I wasn’t politically correct, I wasn’t censoring myself, because the book was about the un-nameability of these things that make us uncomfortable. Now that means that I had to transgress. I had to say what people think and don’t say, as often as I could do it. It’s very easy to—just as it’s easy to walk in the neighborhood and not notice that you’re not crossing Hoyt Street. Discomfort with race and incomplete feelings about race are in every interaction; they are in every part of our culture. This is what you mostly try not to acknowledge, because it’s just so hard.
BENDING GENRES; DISAPOINTING READERS
Dan Sangeap: I can imagine that people in the sort of mainstream audience would’ve been perhaps deterred—I know I almost was—from picking up your book, based on the description of “Oh, it has something to do with superheroes and comic books,” which you know, is not a huge draw to describe it that way. Turning it around to the other side, it seemed like you had a little bit of a reputation with genre writing prior to this novel. I could see that those people would also be very disappointed if they picked up this book, and thought, “Oh, it’s going to be about superheroes,” and it really wasn’t.
Jonathan Lethem: Well, I had made a long practice by now, I mean I had really gotten away with, for quite a while, of being very obstinate about disappointing expectations, because none of the books have been like one another.
In a way I got that project of disappointing expectations started very resoundingly at the start, because my very first book, Gun with Occasional Music, introduced a hard-boiled detective. It was a book that was kind of a combination of film-noir and science fiction. And while, you know, 99 percent of the writers who’ve ever introduced a detective in their first book—if that detective is alive at the end of that book, everybody knows they’re going to write about that detective over and over again. And everyone, initially, because they had no other examples of my writing available to them but the one book, was so sure that I’d do that, that there are people in the audiences that I talk to who will still express disappointment. You know, now I’m going on 15 years later, and they’ll still be sort of waiting hopefully: “Are you going to do another Conrad Metcalf book?” Like they’ve been reading all of the others, and they’re sort of politely not wanting to let me know that they’re disappointed.
So, by the time I get to novel six, my new idea is I want to write this massive autobiographical documentary portrait of Brooklyn in the â€70s, but there’ll be a superhero character in it, well, if anything, I’m almost meeting expectations by disappointing them. Because, by doing something that no one has seen from me before, I’m kind of keeping to my own weird code.
But I know that it’s dismaying sometimes, and I’m stuck, as most of the characters in Fortress of Solitude are stuck, with making the kind of art—singing or graffiti or experimental film—that they seem to have to make. I’m stuck with my own impulse, to make these kinds of books. I’ve given up on the idea that I can calculate what people want and then deliver it. That doesn’t seem to happen for me. So I’m very lucky, anyway: I have great reception. Whoever might be put off, I have plenty of other people, like you guys, very fortunately, who seem curious about what I’m doing.
Tracy Brisson: I was just curious about your next project.
Jonathan Lethem: I just turned in a draft—an almost finished version—of a new novel that’s totally different from Fortress of Solitude on a lot of different ways. Fortress of Solitude isn’t my last book, it’s my last novel. There’s actually two collections since then. I had a book of short stories and a book of semi-autobiographical essays, both of them relatively small collections. The book of essays is almost a memoir by mosaic — a series of little glimpses of myself. The book of stories, which is called Men and Cartoons, has a lot to do with the idea of putting superheroes and other fantastical creatures—talking animals and stuff—into realistic stories. Both of those little books, in a way, are quite close to Fortress of Solitude. They sort of have a quality of being like after-births to this giant novel. So if you put the three together — or you could even include Motherless Brooklyn — I’ve spent awhile writing about Brooklyn and superheroes and, kind of, detectives.
I wanted to stop with all of that at once, and so I just wrote a novel that has no fantastic element—no superhero or talking animal of any kind—that also has no Brooklyn in it—it’s not set in New York; it’s set in Los Angeles. If you’ll notice, the last books all, in a way, have parenthood in common. There’s always fathers and sons in these books, and, if you read Motherless Brooklyn, it’s sort of about adopted fathers and adopted sons. But, I wanted to throw that out, so there’s no children and parents. The characters in this novel are all twenty-somethings living in Los Angeles, trying to start a rock band. It’s quite a silly book, in comparison to Fortress; it’s a romantic comedy. It was a way to leave behind all of this heavy personal exploration, and to just put Brooklyn aside, at least for a couple of years, and do something that was a piece of pure storytelling. So that’s just being finished up, and it’ll be published early 2007.
Book Club Member: Were you in Los Angeles when you were in California?
Jonathan Lethem: No, I was in Northern California. I was in Berkeley, mostly. And actually, it’s an interesting question, because it would seem—“Oh, then why didn’t he write about Berkeley”—but I wanted to write about a place that I didn’t know so well. By writing about Brooklyn for these last—you know the majority of the last—ten years of my writing life, I’ve been constantly exploring the relationship of myself to a place that I had intense feelings for. And I wanted to actually use place in a slightly less freighted way. I wanted to use Los Angeles—I wanted to write about a place I was merely curious about, that I didn’t have a lot of personal associations or emotions connected to. And I’d been in L.A. just enough to write about it with that kind of amused, bemused, confused sense of detachment, where I’m writing about it as a tourist.
Book Club Member: It’s not really a question, it’s a comment. In the 1960s my family and I moved to Clinton Hill, and when I read Fortress of Solitude I was taken back there. I found it very easy to just slip right back to that time. I thought it was magnificent. And my daughters went to St. Ann’s, and I remember when they would come back on the bus, there was always some kid who would say, “Let me have some money.” And you’d better let them have some money.
Also Dylan’s parents: he was alienated from them, because they were weird: the mother just goes off, and the father seemed to be in his own little world, and really didn’t connect with his son very well.
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, and it’s that same Gothic imagination that has me turning Heather Buckler into Mrs. Haversham that has me exaggerating some aspects of my own experience, or changing them and adapting them to make a quite horrible experience for Dylan. My father’s a painter, but he’s nothing like Abraham. He’s very social and actually a very connected person. In fact, in his art as well—you know, Abraham paints these abstract colors over and over again—my father was a painter of people, and he always had models and friends—other painters—in and out of his studio. Very colorful, social place, his painting studio. My mother, as you may know from some of my other writings—from either the autobiographical essays, or from some of the other novels where I approach this quite directly—my mother died of cancer when I was a teenager. So I had a mother, and a quite active and wonderful one, much further into my childhood than Dylan. Dylan has his mother run away when he’s six or seven in the book. And of course, it’s worse to have a parent run away, then to have her die. But while she’s around, Dylan’s mother is in some ways a portrait of the looniest and most fun and bewildering aspects of my own mother, who was a very outspoken and funny and challenging, fascinating parent to know. Of course, I got to get a much better handle on my mother than Dylan got on his, because I was with her for so much longer.
Book Club Member: Until she ran way, she really was quite great for him.
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, that’s right. I agree with you.
Book Club Member: But, she just ran off.
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, it’s probably quite implausible that that mother would run away from Dylan, actually. If you think about it hard, it might be a bit of a stretch that, however in love with this other guy, or out of love with her husband, she might have been, that she would leave that child behind. I mean, I think I’m doing enough in the book to distract you that you don’t focus on it.
Gotham Gazette: So, we’re out of time. Thank you very much.
Jonathan Lethem: You bet.
Gotham Gazette: Our book for November is Learning to Govern by former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. He will be joining us here from 6 PM to 7 PM on November 30. You can buy the book on our Web site. (Applause)