The Blue Sky for American Fiction 
An interview with Jonathan Lethem
By Alan DeNiro

From Gadfly June 1999


Jonathan Lethem has been described by the Village Voice as "opening up the blue sky for American fiction." The range and breadth of his writing cannot be denied. He first gained attention on a large scale for Gun, with Occasional Music—a stylish conflation of Raymond Chandler's voice with a futuristic dystopia. The book was delightfully uncategorical, a signal virtue that carries through in the rest of Lethem's work. It also revealed Lethem's ability to pull together genres that don't normally speak to one another. He has written a surreal road-trip novel, wending through multiple, tiny apocalypses (Amnesia Moon); an academic satire involving a void-in-the-universe called Lack (As She Climbed across the Table); and a coming-of-age story set on an alien planet (Girl in Landscape). Lethem is also the author of an accomplished collection of stories, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye.

These books are difficult to pin down to any one thematic concern. If you were to look back on them thirty years from now, you might be reminded of a marvelous string of early novels written by Don DeLillo, near-masterpieces like Running Dog, Ratner's Star and Great Jones Street. This isn't to say that Lethem writes like DeLillo (except peripherally), but like DeLillo's, Lethem's fiction has a cumulative force as a body of work and seems destined to endure.

I wanted to ask you about the unique (now defunct) literary journal Crank! What did the magazine mean to you and your work? Your stories had a long run with them. What does their loss bode for science fiction or experimental literature in general?

JL: I'd love for there to still be a Crank!, but it's the nature of that kind of magazine that the more passionate and individual and cranky a labor of love it is, the more it doesn't make money, almost by design. Bryan Cholfin has to be respected for getting out once he felt he was stretched too thin, because it was really all him. Him and his brilliant taste, and ultimately him and his inelastic credit cards. It became a terrific home for me and actually kept me writing short fiction longer than I might have otherwise. Its demise corresponds to the demise of my short-fiction writing, because I've been doing mostly book reviewing and other kinds of journalism recently instead, as a complement to the novel writing. Obviously, magazines like Crank! are important. Bryan had an agenda and he wasn't ashamed of it; he had enemies and he was proud of it. It gave things a flavor [now] so rare, and it inspired you to send him your best stuff that would turn him on. And there's a percentage of my short fiction that comes out so strange that it can't find a home. For a little while, it was precisely the strangest stuff I was writing that was most assured of a home at Crank! I was terribly grateful for that.

Is there a place for that kind of truly original, hard-to-classify fiction now?

After Crank!, which was functioning like a real magazine, you start to fall down in that slightly less prominent and less professional stratum—although it can be very exciting to place in the 'zine world or little poetry magazines that don't get any kind of national distribution and can't afford a glossy cover. If you've got a name, you find publishers willing to publish your odd bits here and there. You have to be careful publishing notes or jottings just because someone said they'd take almost anything of yours to get your name into their magazine. There are places where I can publish extensive jottings; I've done a little bit of it since Crank! disappeared. There was a wonderful magazine for that that also folded recently called Exquisite Corpse [edited by Andrei Codrescu]. The most Crank!-like story I ever published anywhere except for Crank! was in that magazine.

I was reading Amnesia Moon recently and noticed parallels between its vision of the American West and Girl in Landscape's. Chaos [in Amnesia Moon] hallucinates and re-hallucinates his road trip and the land he's covering; Pella [in Girl in Landscape] in a way becomes part of the landscape. What does the sense of place mean to you in terms of the West?

Those two books are definitely related; in some ways, they both take place in Arizona and Utah, and that landscape I discovered pretty late in my life. I was an Easterner, and I'd been all through New England and the Midwest, but it was when I was twenty or twenty-one that I finally crossed Kansas and discovered a different, vast, empty American space. It was overwhelming as a sensory experience and as an image of the American possibility, but also it had a desolate, already ruined quality. Obviously, it spoke a lot to me.

Then I took several trips through Arizona and Utah and looked at the canyon land while I was getting acquainted with John Ford movies. In Amnesia Moon, you still see me dealing with these things more iconographically, which is why I hurry through the different landscapes, because I'm not able to dwell in them in a more real and embodied way. I've been through those spaces and they've impressed me, but I'm also still interested by my own ideas about them and by things like J. G. Ballard's ideas about them.... The difference between Amnesia Moon and Girl in Landscape is that Amnesia Moon is an indictment about disembodied living. It's a book obsessed with this suggestion that a virtual space or dream space or perhaps even a cyberspace could be a replacement for the tangible. The main character keeps casting away these suggestions in a kind of panic and tries to return to the body, though he never actually ever gets there in the book.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a book which I'm very proud of. It'll strike some people as a departure, because it doesn't have any obvious fantastical elements. But in another sense, it's perfectly aligned with my previous work. It has a real fantastic element, Tourette's syndrome, as a defining theme and metaphor running through it. That makes the book as strange and as fantastical as anything I've written. It's set in Brooklyn in the '70s and '90s and has an antic film noir crime element. There are those people who have been disappointed that I haven't returned to the Gun, with Occasional Music crime caper stuff, and there's some of that again. So it's sort of a return and a departure.

It's called Motherless Brooklyn—got a title finally—and I'm pleased as punch about it. Trying not to rest on my laurels for the moment. I know there's another book lurking in me, but I'm going to keep from starting it for a few months.

You said you've been doing more journalistic work. Has that informed your fiction?

I don't know. I don't think I've seen it inform the fiction. I feel it's like a different stratum of thinking and writing, one I didn't think I was able to do. I didn't know I was interested in even trying to do it earlier on; I only wrote fiction for so long. I've been doing film reviewing recently and a little bit of book reviewing, and I wrote that one long essay for the Village Voice. I might write another piece of nonfiction that's more like a memoir piece before I get back to the novel. It's been an interesting adventure. I found that I've been able to learn the skills and become an adequate journalist. It's not leading the fiction anywhere; if anything, the fiction's becoming more autobiographical and a little more concerned with the here and now. That may have made the journalism more possible, but not the reverse.

You've written a lot about the desert Southwest.

But I don't think I'm going to be visiting the desert in my work for a little while. I feel that I got that job done at the end of Girl in Landscape. My current work is very much about my return to New York City and allowing that as a subject. I grew up here, and it was such an enormous experience, but when I moved to California and became a fiction writer I sort of quarantined New York and didn't think about it for my work. The first four novels and the short stories in that period have Californian or Western American settings. The one exception to that is "Light and the Sufferer" in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, the only short story where I very deliberately accessed New York and some of the incidents and memories that go with it. That story seems more and more—after I've finished the novel and think about what I should do next—like an early warning sign of where my work has headed.

You mentioned in an article that doing research for a novel for you means looking at other novels and films. Was that the case for Motherless Brooklyn?

This book, in a funny way, is less that than any of the four other novels. It depends less on two or three key talismanic objects, the way, say, Shirley Jackson's stories and John Ford's The Searchers informed Girl in Landscape; or Don DeLillo, John Barth and Olaf Stapledon informed As She Climbed across the Table; or obviously Raymond Chandler and Philip Dick did Gun, with Occasional Music; and then that kind of a crazy quilt of things like Dick, Ballard, Dr. Seuss and a whole lot of movies—Wim Wenders movies, particularly—informed Amnesia Moon. It's harder to say about Motherless Brooklyn what my sources are. I know they're there, but they're floating in a slightly different, more distant field around the book. Scorsese movies are definitely a part of it, Mean Streets and Goodfellas. Certain pieces of writing by Oliver Sacks on Tourette's syndrome were terribly important and things I went back to again and again. But that was less a piece of talismanic inspiration than a piece of pure research, a vital node of research. In a weird way, the musician Prince was important for this new book, and I namecheck him; he's in there so people will feel like they know what I mean. But I don't know, if I hadn't mentioned it, whether anyone would think that or even believe me. I'm sure there are others that aren't coming to mind as readily as they should; that's partly because I'm not experienced at talking about this new book yet. Talking about any given book is a learning process in itself, and I'm only just beginning to give this one a public life.

Has there been any response to the Village Voice Literary Supplement article you wrote about the need to transcend the boundaries of science fiction ["Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction," June '98]?

I'd say the most specific and productively positive thing that's happened—and certainly the nicest surprise—was that a whole string of editors from New York publishing houses, not ones associated with science fiction in any way, but younger editors, piped up and wrote me letters or cornered me at parties and said, I'm so glad someone said that. I grew up reading both sci-fi and literature and never understood when I came into publishing why the strictures between the two were so ironclad.

I'm really gratified to think there's this generation of younger editors in publishing who are dying to hear these things said. You're seeing some books published right now, really wonderful books, like Louse by David Grand and The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, that reflect that hopefulness.

It's interesting what you're describing—the dissolution of these different genre boundaries. You approached that in the Voice piece.

I think in some ways the article was an autobiographical piece in the guise of something critical or scholarly. I find it harder and harder to say what I even mean by sci-fi itself, because the terms are getting fainter for me. That essay almost represents a last cry from within, an argument that I find myself less and less able to inhabit in any way. Whether or not the work I do has fantastic elements, it seems to be blatantly by now just a question of subject matter.

Subject matter is not how you define what you like in literature, or what you don't like; it's almost incidental. I know that that's probably, again, kind of an autobiographical confession about the way my work is leading me into other kinds of issues. I used to engage very richly in dealing with genre boundaries and a lot of the energy in writing books like Gun, with Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon came from thinking about genre boundaries, but now I'm doing the opposite. The work may still wander in and out of those boundaries, but it's not out of the conscious pleasure of engaging boundaries; it's more through happenstance.