"I had always wanted to be a writer who confused genre boundaries and who was read in multiple contexts." -- Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Allen Lethem (born February 19, 1964) is an American writer. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lethem trained to be an artist before moving to California and devoting his time to writing. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a genre work that mixed elements of science fiction and detective fiction, was published in 1994. It was followed by three more science fiction novels. In 1999, Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel that achieved mainstream success. In 2003, he published The Fortress of Solitude, which became a New York Times Best Seller. In 2005 he received a MacArthur Fellowship. Lethem is also a prolific essayist and short story writer.
"Comics? Honestly, that's more a matter of nostalgia for me. I think most of that energy has gone to my love of literature and my love of film.""Discomfort is very much part of my master plan.""Fantastic writing in English is kind of disreputable, but fantastic writing in translation is the summit.""I can't bear the silent ringing in my skull.""I don't paint anymore. I haven't since I abandoned it at 19, in order to begin writing seriously.""I got into underground comics fairly early on and kind of wandered away from the superhero stuff, but I was an art student and I was drawing a lot as a kid.""I grew up with an artist father, and my parents' friends were also mainly artists or writers, so he connects what I do with his example.""I just noticed recently that in one book after another I seem to find an excuse to find some character who, to put it idiotically simply, is allowed to talk crazy.""I keep one simple rule that I only move in one direction - I write the book straight through from beginning to end. By following time's arrow, I keep myself sane.""I learned to write fiction the way I learned to read fiction - by skipping the parts that bored me.""I never take any notes or draw charts or make elaborate diagrams, but I hold an image of the shape of a book in my head and work from that mental hologram.""I plan less and less. It's a great benefit of writing lots, that you get good at holding long narratives in your head like a virtual space.""I try not to become too regular an addict of any one subculture.""I work on a laptop specifically so I can work in cafes and pretend I'm part of the human world.""I'd excluded New York from my writing, and then I came back and I fell in love with it all over again. The energy comes from an absence, that yearning for New York when you are not there.""I'd have been a filmmaker or a cartoonist or something else which extended from the visual arts into the making of narratives if I hadn't been able to shift into fiction.""I've had the odd good luck of starting slowly and building gradually, something few writers are allowed anymore. As a result I've seen each of my books called the breakthrough. And each was, in its way.""I've never related to the work geek at all-it sounds much more horrible than nerd. Like a freak biting a chicken's head off in a sideshow.""In my third novel there is an actual black hole that swallows everything you love.""It was good while it was good.""It was only as I wrote about it that I began to find paths of access to feelings that were intolerable to me then.""It's now expected of me that I will defy expectation, so I really generally seem to be free to write what I want.""My fiction has been influenced by the visual arts, though not in obvious ways, it seems to me. I don't offer tremendous amounts of visual information in my work.""Nerds are just deep, and neurotic, fans. Needy fans. We're all nerds, on one subject or another.""The arts and a belief in the values of the civil rights movement, in the overwhelming virtue of diversity, these were our religion. My parents worshipped those ideals.""The book is openly a kind of spiritual autobiography, but the trick is that on any other level it's a kind of insane collage of fragments of memory.""The more film I watch, the more John Ford looks like a giant. His politics aren't so good, and you have to learn to accept John Wayne as an actor, but he's a poet in black and white.""The past is still visible. The buildings haven't changed, the layout of the streets hasn't changed. So memory is very available to me as I walk around.""What's lucky about my career in general is that I stumbled into what every writer most wants. Not repeating myself and doing strange things has become my trademark.""When the civil rights battle was won, all the Jews and hippies and artists were middle class white people and all the blacks were still poor. Materially, not much changed."
Lethem was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Richard Brown Lethem, an avant-garde painter, and Judith Lethem, a political activist. He was the eldest of three children; his brother Blake is an artist, and his sister Mara is a photographer and writer. Jonathan was raised in a commune in the pre-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill. Despite a pervasive feeling of racial tension, he later described his Bohemian childhood as “thrilling” and culturally wide-reaching; he gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the music of Bob Dylan, saw Star Wars twenty-one times during its original theatrical release, and read the complete works of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Lethem later called Dick’s work “as formative an influence as marijuana or punk rock...as equally responsible for beautifully fucking up my life, for bending it irreversibly along a course I still travel.”
His parents divorced when Lethem was young. When he was thirteen, his mother Judith died from a malignant brain tumor, an experience he has said haunted him and heavily affected his writing. In 2007, Lethem explained that "My books all have this giant, howling missing [center]...language has disappeared, or someone has vanished, or memory has gone." Intending to become a visual artist like his father, Lethem attended the High School of Music & Art, where he painted in a style he describes as "glib, show-offy, usually cartoonish." At Music & Art he produced his own zine, The Literary Exchange, that featured artwork and writing, created animated films, and wrote a 125-page unpublished novel, Heroes.
After graduating from high school, Lethem entered Bennington College in Vermont in 1982 as a prospective art student. At Bennington, Lethem experienced an “overwhelming....collision with the realities of class...my parents’ bohemian milieu had kept me from understanding, even a little, that we were poor....at Bennington that was all demolished by an encounter with the fact of real privilege.” This, coupled with a growing realization that he was more interested in writing than art, led Lethem to drop out halfway through his sophomore year. He hitchhiked from Denver, Colorado to Berkeley, California in 1984, “a thousand miles of desert and mountains through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, with about 40 dollars in my pocket," describing it as "one of the stupidest and most memorable things I've ever done." He lived in California for twelve years, working as a clerk in used bookstores, including Moe's and Pegasus & Pendragon Books, and writing in his own time. Lethem published his first short story in 1989 and published several more in the early 1990s.
Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, is a merging of science fiction and the Chandleresque detective story which includes talking kangaroos, radical futuristic versions of the drug scene, and cryogenic prisons. The novel was published in 1994 by Harcourt Brace, in what Lethem later described as a "delirious" experience. "I'd pictured my first novels being published as paperback originals,” he recalled, "and instead a prestigious house was doing the book in cloth....I was in heaven." The novel was released to little initial fanfare, but an enthusiastic review in Newsweek, which declared Gun an "audaciously assured first novel," catapulted the book to wider commercial success. Gun, with Occasional Music was a finalist for the 1994 Nebula Award, and placed first in the "Best First Novel" category of the 1995 Locus Magazine reader's poll. In the mid-1990s, film producer-director Alan J. Pakula optioned the novel's movie rights, which allowed Lethem to quit working in bookstores and devote his time to writing.
He followed Gun, with Occasional Music in 1995 with Amnesia Moon. Partially inspired by Lethem's experiences hitchhiking cross-country, this second novel uses a road narrative to explore a multi-post-apocalyptic future landscape rife with perception tricks. After publishing many of his early stories in a 1996 collection (The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye), Lethem's third novel, As She Climbed Across the Table, was published in 1997. The novel takes as its starting point a physics researcher who falls in love with an artificially generated spatial anomaly called "Lack", for whom she spurns her previous partner. Her ex-partner's comic struggle with this rejection, and with the anomaly constitute the majority of the narrative.
In 1996, Lethem moved from the San Francisco Bay Area back to Brooklyn. His next book, published after his return to Brooklyn, was Girl in Landscape. In the novel, a young girl must endure puberty while also having to face a strange and new world populated by aliens known as Archbuilders. Girl in Landscape's plot and characters, including the figures of a young girl and a violently protective father figure, were "very strongly influenced" by the 1956 John Wayne Western The Searchers, a movie with which Lethem is "obsessed."
Mainstream success and "genre bending"
The first novel Lethem began after returning to New York City was Motherless Brooklyn, a return to the detective theme, this time maintaining objective realism while exploring subjective alterity through Lionel Essrog, a protagonist with Tourette syndrome who is obsessed with language. Lethem later called Essrog "obviously the character I’ve written with whom I most identify," and explained that the novel "stands outside myself....It’s the only one which doesn’t need me, never did. It would have found someone to write it, by necessity." Upon its publication in 1999, Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, The Macallan Gold Dagger for crime fiction, and the Salon Book Award, and was named book of the year by Esquire. In 1999, Edward Norton announced that he was planning to write, direct and star in a film adaptation of the novel; in March 2007, Norton said he was still working on the screenplay.
The mainstream success of Motherless Brooklyn made Lethem, according to The New York Times, "something of a hipster celebrity," and he was referred to several times as a "genre bender." Critics cited Lethem's various novels, which were alternately hardboiled detective fiction, science fiction, and autobiographical. (Lethem credited his comfort in genre-mixing to his father's art, which "always combined observed and imagined reality on the same canvas, very naturally, very un-self-consciously.") In Time magazine, Lev Grossman classed Lethem with a movement of authors similarly eager to blend literary and popular writing, including Michael Chabon (with whom Lethem is friends), Margaret Atwood, and Susanna Clarke.
In 2003, Lethem definitively described his opinion of his supposed "genre bending":
The fact is, I used to get very involved, six or seven years ago, and before that, in questions of taxonomy of genre, and in the idea...which is ultimately a political idea...that a given writer, perhaps me, could in some objective way alter or reorganize the boundaries between genres....Nowadays, I've come to feel that talking about categories, about 'high' and 'low', about genre and their boundaries and the blurring of those boundaries, all consists only of an elaborate way to avoid actually discussing what moves and interests me about books...my own, and others'. What I like are books in their homely actuality...the insides of the books, the mysterious movements of characters and situations and the emotions that accompany those movements. The play of sentences, their infinite variety.
In the early 2000s, Lethem published a story collection, edited two anthologies, wrote magazine pieces, and published the 55-page novella This Shape We're In in 2000. This Shape We're In was one of the first offerings from McSweeney's Books, the publishing imprint that arose from Dave Eggers' McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.
In November 2000, Lethem said that he was working on an uncharacteristically "big sprawling" novel, about a child who grows up to be a rock journalist. The novel was published in 2003, as The Fortress of Solitude. The semi-autobiographical bildungsroman features dozens of characters in a variety of milieus, but centers on a tale of racial tensions and boyhood in Brooklyn during the late 1970s. The main characters are two friends of different backgrounds who grew up on the same block in Boerum Hill. It was named one of nine "Editor's Choice" books of the year by The New York Times and has been published in fifteen languages.
His second collection of short fiction, Men and Cartoons, was published in late 2004. In March 2005, The Disappointment Artist, his first collection of essays, was released. On September 20, 2005, Lethem received a MacArthur Fellowship.
In September 2006, Lethem wrote the article, "The Genius of Bob Dylan", a lengthy interview with Bob Dylan, which was published in Rolling Stone magazine; the interview contained Lethem's reflections on Dylan's artistic achievements, and revealed Dylan's dissatisfaction with contemporary recording techniques and his thoughts on his own status.
After Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem decided that "[i]t was time to leave Brooklyn in a literary sense anyway.I really needed to defy all that stuff about place and memory." In 2007, he returned as a novelist to California, where some of his earlier fiction had been set, with You Don't Love Me Yet, a novel about an upstart rock band. The novel revolves around a woman in the band, Lucinda, who answers phones for her friend's complaint line and uses some of a caller's words as lyrics. According to Lethem, You Don't Love Me Yet was inspired by the years he spent as the lead singer in an upstart California band in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during what he called "the unformed posturing phase of life." The novel received mixed reviews.
In 2005, Lethem had announced that he was planning to revive the Marvel Comics character Omega the Unknown in a ten-issue series to be published in 2006. After hearing of the project, Omega co-creator Steve Gerber expressed personal outrage over the use of the character without his participation, though he later discussed the project with Lethem and admitted that he had "misjudged" him. In May, 2006, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada explained that the series had been delayed to 2007, saying that "winning the Macarthur Grant put additional and unexpected demands on [Lethem's] time." The revamped Omega the Unknown series was published in ten monthly issues from October, 2007 to July, 2008; the issues were published in a single volume in October, 2008.
In early 2007, Lethem began work on Chronic City, which was published on October 13, 2009. In July 2008, Lethem said that Chronic City is "set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles G. Finney and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange."
His 2007 essay The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism is a passionate defense of plagiarism and a call for a return to a gift economy in the arts. He writes "The kernel, the soul...let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances...is plagiarism" and "Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you."
Among other projects Lethem is currently working on short books about John Carpenter's movie They Live and the album Fear of Music by Talking Heads. Starting in the spring of 2011 he will serve as the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College (The position formerly held by the late David Foster Wallace).
In 1987, Lethem married the writer and artist Shelley Jackson; they were divorced by 1997. In 2000, he married Julia Rosenberg, a Canadian film executive; they divorced two years later. Lethem lives in Brooklyn and Berwick, Maine, with his third wife, filmmaker Amy Barrett, and their son, Everett Barrett Lethem (b. May 23, 2007).