Jonathan Lethem talks with Erik Davis

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I just finished reading Jonathan Lethem's fantastic new novel Chronic City, a trippy, reality-questioning tale of strange Manhattan that falls right into the genre of fiction that I gravitate to -- that of Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo's White Noise, Warren Ellis's Crooked Little Vein, and of course old-school noir. Indeed, Lethem just edited the stately Philip K. Dick Collection box set for Library of America. (In fact, if you have suggestions of other books in that realm, please post in the comments! I'm always asking people to complete the phrase, "If you love JG Ballard and PKD, you might like...") BB pal Erik Davis interviewed Lethem for the new issue of h+ Magazine. In the discussion, they talk of PKD, pot, and the novel as technology. From h+:


ED: Part of the experience I have of novels these days is that it seems like the more awake and aware and acute they are, the more they are aware of their own fragility in the face of other kinds of narrative technologies. The most obvious example is simulation -- immersive worlds that we can go into and reproduce behaviors that are more or less storylike. The fundamental character of a massive, open-ended, multi-player role-playing game is utterly different at this point than the character in a novel. How will novels stand up?
We're all walking down the street conducting our self-Turning exams everytime we pass a homeless person, or greet our spouse at the breakfast table.

JL: I'm far too close to one pole to illuminate. But I'll say that -- in the face of certain kinds of rival technologies and rival frameworks for experiencing what we might call self-admitting false realities -- novels are a class of virtual reality experience that has some very particular and innate bottom lines. And I happen to like those. As I see the rivals emerge, I feel that novel-making and reading becomes one option on a very large menu, and in some ways a rather antique or humble or lumpen example. But I also think some of the things that make it that are also deep strengths that are becoming more and more highlighted.

We talked about what makes Dick so compelling and personal -- what made us each take him so personally when we discovered his work. And in some ways, those are elements that are innate to this very strange technology -- this gigantic pile of sentences stuck between two hard covers, that someone makes this incredible commitment to read. It's a bizarre commitment, very unusual the first few times you make it -- to just sit and follow, in order, each of these sentences and make the artificial reality come to life yourself by reading. It's a crazy technology, very specific and weird. Now may not be the time to take it for granted. Instead, maybe we should point out that by doing this, you do achieve a kind of weird mind meld.

"Chronic Citizen: Jonathan Lethem on P.K. Dick, Why Novels are a Weird Technology, and Constructed Realities" (h+)

Chronic City (Amazon)

"Philip K. Dick Collection" (Amazon)