Jonathan Lethem on His New Novel, Cultural Appropriation Controversies, and Dylan’s Nobel

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Photo: Adrian Cook

Aside from being a best-selling novelist and former recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, Jonathan Lethem not long ago found himself in the additionally enviable position of being a free man. In 2014, while on sabbatical from his professorship at Pomona College and having just published two ambitious efforts — the multigenerational, far-left family saga Dissident Gardens, and the career-spanning collection The Ecstasy of Influence — Lethem accepted an invitation to spend a few months the American Academy in Berlin. “When I was there,” says Lethem, “I realized that after detoxing from Dissident Gardens and The Ecstasy of Influence, I was in a very cleared-out place; there was nothing obligatory in my situation. And I wanted to reflect that in my next book. I wanted to write a book just for me.” The result is Lethem’s noirish new novel A Gambler’s Anatomy, which concerns, among other things, high-stakes backgammon, psychic powers, and toe-curling descriptions of experimental facial surgery. 

He may be writing for himself these days, but that’s not to say the 52-year-old Brooklyn native is feeling disengaged from the culture. Far from it. During a long conversation at the New York offices, Lethem talked about how his breakthrough novel of race, gentrification, and superpowers, 2003’s The Fortress of Solitude, might be received in today’s identity-politics moment, why superhero movies are so awful, whether or not Bob Dylan deserved his Nobel, and the strange view from the center of the literary world when all he ever hoped for was a career at the margins.

It’s interesting to me that even though A Gambler’s Anatomy is in so many ways a departure from your recent work, the book still has all the old pop-culture references you're known for, to things like Jonah Hex and the Ghost Rider. One of the things that people latched on to with your work was your fluency with "low" culture. But now that superheroes and comics are so dominant, and no one seriously thinks of them as devoid of intellectual value, has their resonance changed?
I’m the wrong person to ask that because I was never on point with comic-book culture anyway. I was always reading some tattered old, yellowed, single issue of a forgotten comic book. Mine was a private, arcane ritual. My engagement with pop culture is not what people always assume. Everyone I know right now has some big take on LemonadeI have not heard Lemonade. And I don't need to. I'll figure it out later. Or I won't. The things that fascinate me about pop culture are the failed products of popular-culture impulses.

The Swamp Doggs of the world?
He's the perfect emblem. I'm from Loserville. For me, it’s Donny Hathaway as much as it's Marvin Gaye, and it's the Mets instead of the Yankees. People are always wanting me to have a take on the superhero, the triumphalist phase of the superhero icon. The guys with capes now rule the world, you're partly responsible for that. I can’t help you there.

I regret having asked such a hacky question!
It's not that the question is hacky, it's that that people in everyday life want me to have an opinion on superheroes because of The Fortress of Solitude. I brought it on myself, of course. But I would point out that the superhero in my book about a superhero has powers that are only useless and destructive.

Just like the psychic protagonist of A Gambler's Anatomy.
Yes, of course. You know, the last new superhero comic that arrested my attention was when Watchmen came out. But what is that except a deconstruction of every superhero premise? It should be the end of the genre. If you really take the implications of Alan Moore's story, no one should ever go there after. So the fact that now everyone is supposed to take superhero stories straight on their face and love them all the time is actually incomprehensible to me.

Alan Moore feels just about the same way. He thinks superhero movies are pretty much the apex of contemporary adult infantilism.
Since you're interested, Professor Lethem will now continue the lecture: I have a very strong belief that superhero movies have nothing to do with comic books. And that this is the case at a deep formal and structural level. What makes a page of a comic book a deep and mysterious artifact is the stillness and the blank space between the panels, the gutters as they’re called. Comics have an extremely baroque relationship to the idea of time, because a page is a series of static moments that have to be activated by the reader in the blank space between the panels. And it's really in the blank space, in those gutters, where the action is. That's where the mind is going.

Does that also apply to more intellectually ambitious graphic novels? 
One of the things that I've noticed in this whole period of the gentrification of the comic book is that all the people who didn't read them growing up and that were handed Maus or Fun Home and are told, This is something really important and you're gonna love it — they have to work really hard to read them. Reading a comic book is a very difficult reading act. Because it’s learned by little children, people don't realize that they've accomplished something intricate. But when you look at a page of captions, drawing, word balloons, and maybe also thought balloons, and that page is arranged in six stacked panels but maybe those panels break the ordinary axis sometimes, too — you are thrust into a series of problematic reading decisions. You have to activate that page at your own speed by your own procedure of deciding, Do I look at the drawing first and try to absorb the visual meaning? Do I read the caption? Do I read what they're saying and think about it like it's a play or a movie? It's actually totally fucked up and really exciting. It's like reading squared.

And the superhero movies by contrast are overly simplistic?
They’re the ultimate opposite. They do everything for you. CGI smooths out all of the action. There are no gutters. There are no decisions. You have to let the movie sweep over you and through you. You cannot control the experience; it's controlling you. So even though the guy on the page and the guy on the screen are wearing the same cape, he's being used in two formally diametrically opposed ways. I'm a great advocate for thinking about films in generic terms: the Western, the Screwball Comedy, the Film Noir — these are things I revere. I don't think Hollywood has ever produced a more stillborn, dead-on-arrival genre than the superhero movie. It has the earmarks of a genre — every one does the same thing — but it just has no juice in it.

For a variety of nerdy reasons, I just reread the Bob Dylan profile that you wrote for Rolling Stone in 2006. Right near the end of the piece Dylan is talking about ...
Singular performers, and he mentions Donald Trump.

Exactly. He was listing people who he felt were worthy of praise. It's Slim Harpo, Patsy Cline, Socrates, Plato, Whitman, Emerson, and Donald Trump. I was having a hard time figuring out what he was trying to say there.   
I remember the flavor of talking with Dylan. He would say something assertive or defiant and then he'd either try to wreck the quote or he'd begin making fun of himself. So what he was saying at the start of his riff was, essentially, "I think I've accomplished something that very few people have accomplished." Then he was looking for examples of other people who've also accomplished something to try to make his assertion more humble. Ultimately it became one of these surrealist Bob Dylan quotes, which in his mind is better than the kind of pedantic boasting the quote began as. And so I think he reached for Donald Trump to cap the list off with someone ridiculous.

I'm glad to have my suspicion confirmed that Bob Dylan didn't really see something admirable in Donald Trump.
That quote has seasoned very, very beautifully because he was also including Donald Trump among people who insist upon creating their own reality.

When Dylan won a Pulitzer a few years back, you were quoted in the Times as saying there was something slightly odd about his being given literary awards. What was your reaction to his winning the Nobel Prize? A lot of people had a problem with it.
I think he's the bard of the age, so I didn't find it either to be a shock or objectionable. It was almost like, Let's graduate him to the highest award we can think of and be done with it. If I could quibble, it would be with the Nobel committee’s specific citation of him as a "poet." I would go to Ellen Willis, who in the '70s said — and she was way ahead of the curve on this — she said: "People call Dylan a poet because a poet is the paradigmatic 'seer.' But they don't really mean he writes poetry, and he doesn't." A lot of Dylan's writing dies on the page and that's beside the point. The action is in the almost theatrical power of his embodiment of his language. Not in poetry, per se. He's in the oral tradition. His work isn't meant to look like a Wallace Stevens poem. But I like the fact he's kicked up a controversy again, because provocation is intrinsic in his identity and accomplishments. I thought he was too gentrified to freak anyone out anymore.

Since you uttered the word "gentrification" — I couldn't help but wondering how a book like Fortress of Solitude would be received in 2016, especially given the current thinking about identity politics and representation. Did you happen to follow the hubbub over what your fellow novelist Lionel Shriver said about cultural appropriation
I'm in a slightly leaning away from the internet moment. So I only knew about the Lionel Shriver speech because my students at Pomona told me about it. They felt aggrieved that someone would say what she did about cultural appropriation. But they're also interested in arguments for the freedom of the creative act, and they’re clever enough to ask me about it with the example of my own work partly in mind. I have a lot of thoughts about this, and they’re not the kind that I'd want to see thrashing around on Twitter. Because when I read her speech I thought, Well, this is supposedly on my behalf, and I disliked it intensely.

Why?
I just read Sarah Bakewell's book about the existentialists and it got me in touch with what mattered about Jean-Paul Sartre and his form of engagement. In the middle of his career, Sartre tested an axiom. He said that in any discourse, if you side with the least powerful, you'll be more right than you’re wrong. That came immediately to mind with Shriver. She was deafening herself to the pain and the discomfort of the things that have caused people to make the claims that offended her — that someone shouldn't feel free to write a certain kind of character. I might want to claim that license, but I would do it in a very different way. And I might want to encourage my students to believe that The Fortress of Solitude could still be written and published in 2016. I don't doubt that you're probably right that there might be a different flavor of anxiety aroused by the book — it's not that there wasn't some back then — but Shriver's defiance actually is a form of crassness. She thought exaggerating her position would make it striking. It ended up being scornful. So the tone was wrong a thousand different ways. She didn't try to say, "I need to be able to write about people other than myself and here's why I think that would be important for anyone to understand and I want you to feel good about it." Her speech made no use of intellectual empathy. She was basically saying, “If you've ever been made uncomfortable by that gesture, you're a fool.” 

I'm going to steal a question that you asked your friend Philip Price from the Winterpills in an interview the two of you did for Vulture: Does writing to the Zeitgeist matter to you? A Gambler's Anatomy seems far less apparently Zeitgeist-y than your last couple of novels.
Yeah, I don't think it matters to me. But really what Philip and I were talking about is being aging artists. At this point in my career, I'm not arriving and I'm not anyone's idea of a breaking story. I'm just older, and I have to make something of that. I can't pretend that my students live in the same world that I recognize. I'm entrenched in the past in a lot of ways, and that gives me some opportunities and cuts off others. The places where my work touches contemporary arguments may be a little bit gnomic now. After taking on all the historical responsibility I incurred with Dissident Gardens in some self-conscious way I wanted to write a book that was a tale, that had no stakeholders. There are no vast legions of the dead and the living who could be aggrieved by A Gambler's Anatomy. At worst, maybe some backgammon players would get pissed at me. I wasn't going to say big things about the left or New York. Or with The Fortress of Solitude: It was thrilling to take on all of the other voices in my head and discover how much baggage I can bear into my fiction. But the new book was meant to be a little bit like, What can I do with only a carry-on? I just wanted to be a storyteller.

Hearing you talk about your awareness of where you are in the timeline of your career reminds me of a conversation I had once with a mid-career musician. He was saying that he felt increasingly interested in albums recorded by artists in the unglamorous, yeoman-like middle of their careers because he thought those albums had a certain mature wisdom and vibe to them — Captain Beefheart's Clear Spot was one he mentioned. I don't 100 percent know what he meant, but I also sort of know exactly what he meant.
Well, Clear Spot is my favorite Captain Beefheart, and I appreciate getting to think about my career analogously to him rather than, you know, Philip Roth or ...

Other novelists of your age named Jonathan or Michael?
Yeah. So first of all, A Gambler’s Anatomy is my tenth novel. I can't help noticing the double digit. It's like, that's different. Also, over the past four or five years, having moved out to California and slowed life down in a lot of ways and then gotten both the Ecstacy of Influence and Distant Gardens out of my system, and they both were kind of like having a brain disease. And publishing those coincided neatly with my first-ever academic sabbatical. Because I've never had a job before. So one of the things the job includes is they say, Go away now. Which is pretty magical. And I went to the American Academy in Berlin [in 2014]. When I got there I wasn't teaching and my plate was clear in certain other ways, so I just read and reread things for pleasure. I reread all of Graham Greene. I reread Moby-Dick. I read some Christina Stead novels that I'd never read before. And then I read a lot of writers I'd never read before and critical theory that maybe I'd pretended to have read, but this time I really read it. 

I'm not totally following where this is going.
I'm sorry. This is a long answer. The point is that the view from Berlin gave me a slightly longer sense of who I'd become as a writer, what my strengths had been, and what I still could do, what I could pursue, how I could extend my project, and how lucky I was. Suddenly, I just could see the space around me. I could see the old books and I could see the more recent books and I could see that what I was going do next was all up to me.

So the experience of being in the middle of your career as an artist is similar, in some ways at least, to what it was like at the beginning?
When I was alone in empty space working as a bookstore clerk in Berkeley and I conceived and wrote Gun, With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table in that sequence, I was really writing for myself. And I think, in a sense, A Gambler’s Anatomy helped me feel my way back to that situation. But then conversely, ten books in, unless you're really blinkered, unless you're trying hard not to know what you're up to as a writer, you start to see what you're up to as a writer.

And what does Jonathan Lethem think Jonathan Lethem is up to? 
Once I started to work on A Gambler's Anatomy, I could see the old song and dance coming out again. There was going to be the missing mother and a distressing love/hate relationship to having origins in the counterculture. It's, like, you are helplessly yourself.

What if we extend the question from you to your vocation. Ten novels and 22 years into your professional career, do you have a sense of whether or not the way novelists fit into the broader culture has changed?
I’m sorry to give you this answer again, but I’m the wrong person to ask about that. I mean I've been around long enough that I should have a view on that, but my self-conception and my real situation at the outset was that I was in a radical fringe position. I was not at the center of the conversation about novels and I wasn't even trying to be. In a way that verges on a fetish I was self-exiling from that center. I had a fascination and a total identification with the kind of writer who needs to be rediscovered after they're dead. I was like, These books are written to go quietly out of print and then knock someone's socks off 30 years after I'm dead. And so I backed into a position of having to acknowledge that I'd been taken as part of the center of the conversation about novels. It's still difficult for me to get up in the morning and look in the mirror and identify with the frame that I'm in.

If you’d like, I can pretend that your original vision for your career is the one that panned out. So: Do you feel frustrated at being a cult author?
Thank you. Thank you. I just don't know what it could be like to be someone who self-conceived that they were contributing to the story of the contemporary novel and were a damn important part of that conversation. I was always startled and delighted by anyone who picked up my work. I didn't really have a readership that interested or impressed New York City and my own publisher until after Motherless Brooklyn. And sometimes people would commiserate with me. They would say, "Was that hard, waiting so long?" And I'm like, What are you talking about? I had my 25 fans and I would go to their house and they would talk to me, and I just loved what I was doing and it seemed totally fulfilling.

If the work you’ve already accomplished somehow seems clearer after getting to ten novels, does that also mean you have a firmer sense of the writer you still hope to be?  
I'll just default to my first, best definition: I would like to be to a 13- or 14- or 15-year-old what people like Philip K. Dick, Patricia Highsmith, and Franz Kafka were to me. Which is like mesmerizing, urgent communications from a universe that had basically sent me this giant, thrilling message that I wasn't alone. And every now and then on a book tour — I'll make myself tear up, here if I'm not careful — a kid, and by kid I mean someone between 12 and 16, will be in line with a tremulous look. I associate this most with a night at a bookstore in Milwaukee. There was a girl. I was on tour for Motherless Brooklyn, but the girl had Girl in Landscape in her hands. [Lethem tears up.] And I'm like, that's it. My life is complete — the way she walked up. I just want to make more things that stand a chance of playing that role for a kid like that. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.