The Ecstasist: A Conversation with the Novelist Jonathan Lethem
Defender, to the death, of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga. Architect of Philip K. Dick’s induction into the Library of America. College drop-out. MacArthur Genius. Comic-book guy. Jonathan Lethem is a man of obscure obsessions and unabashed passions.
In essay collections like The Disappointment Artist and The Ecstasy of Influence—the title is a good-natured rejoinder to the “anxiety of influence,” the critic Harold Bloom’s overheated Freudian notion that a writer defines himself through the Oedipal rejection of his fannish first influences—Jonathan Lethem wants to tell you what Philip K. Dick and Shirley Jackson and Ernie Kovacs and Italo Calvino and the Chilean poet Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Berger and J.G. Ballard mean to him. And who the Top Five Depressed Superheroes are. And why McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, in its entirety, a “great death scene.” And what roles Jerry Lewis turned down. (The Robert Shaw part in Jaws, the John Hurt role in Alien, and Rip Torn’s character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, to name a few). By no accident, the title essay in The Ecstasy of Influence is a no-holds-barred defense of artistic borrowing as essential to the creative act. It’s seamlessly cut-and-pasted together entirely from quoted matter, a metacritical elbow in the ribs so cheeky, and so witty, it makes brothers of Oscar Wilde and the precocious nerd in Lethem.
Lethem is a man of numberless and generous enthusiasms, some of which, like the John Ford Western The Searchers, seem to have him in their grip rather than the other way round. Others are lightly held in that easy-come, easy-go way Roland Barthes admired. But each is an expression of Lethem’s jackdaw intellect—a dot in the constellation of who he is, what he thinks, how he feels.
A lot of the things Lethem likes best occupy that sweet spot between “attackable” but “also beautifully defendable,” an irresolvable, binary-defying quality he seems to find not just fascinating but inspiring—necessary, even. Take The Searchers: Lethem can’t get the John Ford Western out of his head. He riffed on it in Girl in Landscape, his 1998 novel about a teenage girl’s coming of age on the frontier—the extraterrestrial frontier—in a colony of Earthers homesteading on the Planet of the Archbuilders. In that book, he plays cut ‘n’ mix with the bleak mood and Monument Valley backdrop of the movie and Philip K. Dick’s twitchy, unsettling SF novel, Martian Time-Slip, about a bunch of Red Planet settlers beset by suicide, madness, and the unintended consequences of time travel. (Dick is another of Lethem’s many obsessions. His early short stories are steeped in Dick’s amphetamine-frazzled paranoia, his loopy absurdist humor, his assault on the insidious, inexorable replacement of reality by simulacra of every sort. Lethem wears a tattoo on his left bicep of the spray can that appears on the cover of the first American edition of Dick’s novel Ubik. More to the point, he edited three volumes of Dick’s writings for the eminent Library of America, inducting into the canon of American letters a self-described “crap artist” whose speed-fueled novels paid chickenfeed—Dick famously survived on dog food, at one point—but whose desperate, deeply human attempts to unriddle the philosophical questions that kept him up nights did for pulp SF what Melville did for the one-that-got-away yarn.)
Even Lethem doesn’t seem to be entirely sure why The Searchers casts such a long shadow across his mental landscape, like the towering sandstone buttes in Ford’s film. From his first encounter with it, at a film-society screening during his undergrad year at Bennington, something about it—he’s spent countless hours trying to figure out what, exactly—grabbed him and wouldn’t let go. Partway through the movie, the print broke, inspiring groans and catcalls from his bored classmates and an impassioned outburst from Lethem, who castigated the audience for being too lunk-headed to appreciate the brilliance of Ford’s existential Western—and was repaid, for his one-man stand against philistinism, with betrayal: “Fifteen minutes after my speech came a scene of such giddy misogyny, such willful racism, it seemed indefensible by design,” he writes, in “Defending The Searchers (Scenes in the Life of an Obsession).”
He spends the rest of that essay (which appears in The Disappointment Artist) teasing apart the tangle of his relationship with the film, trying to make sense of his “near-hysterical reverence” for it. When a friend dismisses The Searchers as racist camp, Lethem lights into the guy with the wild-eyed fury of the zealot: “How do you decide so easily that you’re superior to a work of art? Ever worry that cheap irony won’t carry you through every situation?” Later, he asks himself, “What was it with this film? Would I ever get to watch it without yelling at someone?”
Lethem is interested in the politics of enthusiasm—why the roots of our likes are so deeply buried, sometimes, that even we can’t unearth them; why we so often feel the need to apologize for the obscure objects of our affections or to defend them to the death or to do both in the same breath. He’s curious, too, about how affinities become obsessions. And, geeky autodidact that he is—did I mention that Lethem is both a college drop-out and a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award?—he’s a staunch believer in individual canons over official notions of Great Books, in the crap artist hip-deep in the culture around him over the lone genius cloistered in his garret.
“People…throw me questions that dare me to defend a love of pop culture, and I realized I stopped wanting to because the premise of the question contained so much self-loathing,” he told an interviewer for the website Big Think. “It was generally being asked by people who loved a lot of those things that they thought fit inside the container of that name but didn’t feel good about loving those things so they were simultaneously hoping I would make them feel better about what they liked and daring me to make an ass of myself defending things that at some other level of their being they thought were indefensible—bad, ephemeral, crappy commercial culture. And I started to say I don’t want to defend pop culture; I don’t even want to talk about things according to the assumptions that nest in that taken-for-granted term. What I’m responsive to…is vernacular culture."
By "vernacular culture," Lethem means "things like the hip-hop culture that I documented in part in Fortress of Solitude, the indigenous urban scrawlings on the wall and chanting rhymes over records in schoolyards"—forms of popular expression that don't even bother to think of themselves as art, most of the time, but are nonetheless "a way to blurt something back at this world that’s so loud and full of stuff, noise, art, and commercials, and junk and argument. They’re sort of like making some argument back: ‘Here’s something!’ I like that. That’s vernacular culture, to me.”
Not that he’s just the sum of his sympathies and antipathies, his footnotes and allusions. For all the forward movement of his galloping intellect and his insatiable appetite for obscure pleasures, memory and loss are the ballast that keep his writing true. There’s his childhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where as one of a very few white kids in an nearly all-black public school he was mercilessly bullied. And his bruising encounter, at Bennington, with the social-Darwinian realities of class and wealth, ugly facts of American life his lefty-bohemian parents had shielded him from, for the most part.
Smack in the middle of his imaginative cosmos is the black hole of his mother’s death, from a brain tumor, when he was 13: “My books all have this giant, howling missing center—language has disappeared, or someone has vanished, or memory has gone,” he told an interviewer. “I’m forever writing around a void—I guess I don’t have to explain to you why that is.” In his autobiographical essay “The Beards” (in The Disappointment Artist), he writes, “Each of my novels, antic as they may sometimes be, is fueled by loss. I find myself speaking about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world.” She, and her death, are influences, too, a binary star that Lethem, in some remote region of his mind, will always be orbiting.
Mark Dery: What’s the first book that made a profound impression on you?
Jonathan Lethem: Lewis Carroll was a real transporter for me. I went from seeing only the story to seeing the language; I was suddenly on trajectory to do what I do. I’d felt the mind moving underneath the page; I wanted to know who’d written those words. It wasn’t just Alice and the Mock Turtle; there was Lewis Carroll, embodied, for me, in the wit. Of course, there were things that set me up for that. Considerably before Carroll, there was a really funky book that I wrote about once but wasn’t able to satisfy myself in doing so; it’s more mysterious than I was able to say. (The essay wasn’t strange enough to match the subject; it was just a mild appreciation.)
It’s a children’s book by the popular shrink, Dr. Eric Berne, who wrote Games People Play, which was a pop-psych bestseller in the ‘60s. He wrote one kids’ book called The Happy Valley, which sounds innocuous, [but] it’s really not. I mean, the valley is happy, but it’s total psychedelia, a typical piece of paisley kid culture. The first movie I was ever taken to, just to put this in context, was Yellow Submarine, and this was very much on a footing with that kind of experience. I still have a copy—I’m actually staring at it across my desk, here. The book was really trippy, I mean, it broke all the rules of children’s books, you couldn’t figure out what age it was for. That was a book I studied, and lived inside, and identified with, well before Alice. It hinged on a lot of weird wordplay and allusiveness and the illustrations were really entrancing.
M.D.: Who were they by?
J.L.: Well, there’s a story there. They’re by this French woman painter named Sylvie Selig and they’re gorgeous, in a style that evokes rock poster art. They look like they were influenced by Yellow Submarine directly. The book is copyright 1968, so it’s really Summer of Love: there’s a pink python who turns himself inside out, and there are these three robbers named Shamrock, Mustache, and Tobedwego. The total effect was really marvelous, partly because they contradicted the text at times, like, the story would say one thing was happening and the illustrations would emphasize something else and they would have characters in them that were not named in the text. So this disjunction between the text and the paintings drew me in. It was like a trap: at some level I was trying to resolve those contradictions but I was also awakened by them into the conjured or artificial quality of the experience.
I name-checked Silvia Selig [in the essay] and she wrote me an e-mail all these years later and eventually I ended up visiting her in Paris, with my newborn baby and my toddler and my wife, at this unbelievably gorgeous painting studio. She had never done another thing for children’s books; it was a totally anomalous part of her life that she’d illustrated this book. She was the Simone Signoret of painting, this great French madame, a very interesting woman, and she ended up giving me a small painting, which now hangs in my children’s bedroom.
M.D.: As little kids, we’re entranced by stories, but we’re equally influenced by the illustrations in books, if not more so. Obvious as that seems, it isn’t given its due, I think, in discussions of writers’ early influences. Do you remember any other books from your early childhood that struck a chord in your visual imagination?
J.L.: Loads of them. I have a powerful somatic memory for books and that’s continuous for me; it goes all the way through my years of working in used bookstores, but it’s very strong at the outset. But it’s also worth saying that I grew up in the home of a painter; my father’s studio was in the house and I was drawing before I had any written language, or could read. I was working with visual languages, so the illustrations in children’s books were hugely important to me, and that includes the Tenniel Alice drawings. I loved illustrations that took me into some strange, fey, slightly antique or grotesque earlier idea of what children liked—older kids’ books, like Gelett Burgess’s The Goops series, which were really fascinating; they’re very connected to Struwwelpeter or Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch. Busch is in some ways the father of the comic strip; I had a Dover edition of the Max and Moritz things translated into English and they’re very much a precursor to Edward Gorey. I also liked animal things. I found animal characters very mysterious and rich; there was an old kids book about bunnies that lived on a hill—
M.D.: Not Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson? Lawson was an astonishing illustrator—somewhat like Garth Williams, but more naturalistic, less sentimental.
J.L.: He’s an amazing artist and Rabbit Hill was the book, absolutely. I think Lawson’s drawings are really entrancing; that kind of draftsmanship really meant a lot to me. You know, my father is an Expressionist painter, a figurative Expressionist, but he put a really high premium on traditional drawing skills. He had that, like, Nicolaïdes drawing training, where you learn to draw what’s before you. I grew up within that sort of guild, you know, the old-school 20th-century [thing] where before you become an artist you’re going to learn to do a contour drawing and to draw mass and to draw drapery. So when I would see an artist like Lawson or Tenniel, who connected to that appreciation of Albrecht Durer that I was brought up inside, it was electrifying for me.
Lawson also did The Story of Ferdinand
[by Munro Leaf], which I wrote about in Dissident Gardens. Near the end, the grandson is given a copy of Ferdinand as a Christmas present at Quaker meeting, and I write about his reaction, his level of identification with Ferdinand the bull, because Ferdinand was specifically a parable of nonviolent pacifist resistance, right? That’s the other thing: the allegorical potential in very simple children’s books was something I was awakened to pretty early. So something like the way Robert Lawson drew Ferdinand the bull’s neck, the thickness of that bull’s neck, which is almost sexual, when you look at it now; it’s just lascivious, the pleasure he’s taking in drawing that meat neck. It reminds me of a quote in this amazing book of lunches with Orson Welles that I’ve been reading just now [ My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles]. It’s such a funny book. What a comedian! He hates everything and he’s ranting about all the things he dislikes and his lunch companion is talking about great actors, and mentions Marlon Brando, and Welles says, “‘Oh, I can never bear to look at Brando! That neck! It’s like a shoe of flesh!’”
M.D.: Do you have a pantheon of illustrators from those early years of your life whose images still reverberate in your mind, even if the stories themselves have eroded away, whether it’s Lawson or Garth Williams or the marvelous pointillist Robin Jacques, or the husband-and-wife team of Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire?
J.L.: The D’Aulaires! I’m reading the D’Aulaires to my kids now, so I’m really engaged with [their books about the Norse and the Greek myths]. What masterpieces! We’re really tripping out on the D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths, all of those realms of discarded giants and ogres who are sort of just grieving in the background, and the cow that brought the world into being by licking the salty crust of the earth; they’re really terrific.
I was enraptured by Feiffer’s drawings for The Phantom Tollbooth; they were as totally unified with the text, in my imagination, as Tenniel’s withAlice. I could never for a minute bear another representation for them. I love Ernest Shepard’s Milne illustrations but he also did Wind in the Willows—beautiful, beautiful drawings, I mean, boy, can you just go dreaming on those. With Wind in the Willows, Shepard and the text were matched in their evocation, for me. Ultimately, with Milne, the text wasn’t as interesting to me, but I could stare at the map on the endpapers of my edition of Pooh; I can still taste the flavor of my consciousness, opening up the endpapers to look at the map, the way those trees oriented in the space of the map, the way the different stories were represented. It was like a Borgesian memory palace: the different experiences in time were all spatially represented on this map—you know, the day they found the Heffalump, and so forth.
That reminds me of another absolutely crucial visual-narrative fuel for me in those years, which was the Warner Brothers cartoons—I watched the Warner Brothers stuff ad nauseum on Saturday mornings, I memorized Daffy Duck and Pepé Le Pew—and glimpses of the Disney animations. I didn’t have enough glimpses; I’m still filling in some of the gaps. When I would get a chance to see something like Fantasia, which I went to see at Radio City Music Hall, the full spectacular with the Rockettes, that was enormous for me. It’s funny because Disney was the dominant paradigm in another generation and Warner Brothers was like its bratty younger brother—“We’re Number Two; We Try Harder,” or maybe “We Try More Sarcastically.” Disney’s stuff was actually very esoteric and elusive; there were no VCR’s, so I would only catch little glimpses of things, but something like that “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence in the middle of Dumbo, I mean, that is an absolute masterpiece, the greatest seven minutes of film.
M.D.: It’s a weird little nocturne, as you realize when you hear Sun Ra’s Arkestra do it. Their version brings out the crepuscular spookiness of the song.
J.L.: I liked these things that gave way to arcane implications, that seemed to connect me to a lost world. I was always searching for that flavor.
M.D.: That reminds me of Luc Sante’s interest in the past, a deep feeling for the surface texture and perfume of lost time that’s poles apart from smirkingly ironic “retro” or postmodern appropriations of the past. It sounds as if that was always beckoning to you, even when you were pretty young.
J.L.: Yeah, I think it was something in my parents’ milieu and sensibility that opened me to that at a very early point; as a kid I was already what a music fan would call a “crate-digger.” It’s so fused with my sensibility that it’s very hard for me to take a peek around the corner of it and identify how it was constructed.
M.D.: Did the visual landscape of your childhood shape you, as a writer?
J.L.: Oh, sure. It’s as close to being a skeleton key to why I do exactly what I do, in the way that I do it, as there can be. I think that I’m helplessly a product of, on one side, the home I grew up in. My father’s studio was a primal site of creativity and possibility; the first books I was pulling off shelves that were not for me weren’t, “Oh, you shouldn’t read that, that’s for grown-ups,” they were, “Oh, you shouldn’t look at that, that’s grown-up art”—volumes of Max Ernst’s paintings and Edvard Munch paintings. I remember becoming completely entranced by a volume of Bosch images that my father had on the shelf. I remember there was this neat little miniaturized book, this tiny reproduction of a notebook by Claes Oldenburg that reproduced page for page these really weird drawings of pork chops being transformed into brassieres and stuff. [ The book Lethem has in mind may be Oldenburg’s Notes in Hand (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971). – M.D.] Or there was a book of Lucas Samaras [Samaras Album, possibly, published by the Whitney Museum of American Art/Pace Editions in 1971 – M.D.]—oh my God, his chairs made out of pins, and chairs made out of shattered mirrors!
These were fixtures of my dreamscape before I had any say in the matter. So you have, on one side, the house I’m growing up inside, and then on the other you have what the 20th century specializes in, which is awesome visual-narrative media: comic books and movies, TV. I was not given any limits in my consumption of these materials, I was swimming in them, I drowned in them, and so my writing comes out of that stuff. This is still a baseline condition. I’m writing a book right now, it’s a novel, and like all novels it’s a giant heap of sentences and paragraphs, which I’m working very hard to make function capably and I hope even beautifully, as language, but the things I want to get out of my brain and onto the page are in some ways fundamentally visual. They’re like sequences in films, or some of them could conceivably be Surrealist paintings. This book is an elaborate excuse to write about a vision of two men playing backgammon on a grill, with hamburgers as the checkers; the race is to get your men home before they burn into total carbon.
M.D.: When you say “vision,” do you mean the muse just alighted on your brow, or was it a dream in the nocturnal sense, or was it chemically induced, or what?
J.L.: I think it just arrived. Dreams are in the mix for me; I sometimes write fairly directly from them. The meat backgammon game I can’t pin to a dream or to a substance. I guess I don’t make really hard distinctions when these peculiar overdetermined images or set pieces or sequences that seem to be fraught or allegorically charged (but you don’t know what the allegory is, or they’re metaphors but you don’t know what they’re metaphors for) arrive. I wouldn’t tend to ascribe them simply to a dream or an intoxicated vision but they do come from some sort of primordial place.
M.D.: Are you by any stretch of the imagination a Surrealist?
J.L.: I respond to the paintings and the films and the propositions. And the collages, I mean, God! There are Surrealist novels that matter enormously to me but they’re the visual ones—the Max Ernst collage novels. But any time I really try to get any traction with the deliberately literary productions of the Surrealists, poems or stories, my interest is nullified.
M.D.: You’re not alone: J.G. Ballard was famously influenced by painters like Ernst and Paul Delvaux but seldom referred, to the best of my knowledge, to Surrealist novels or poetry. And Edward Gorey, who was profoundly influenced by Surrealism’s view of the world, said, “All you have to do is hand me a book of Surrealist short stories and I go to sleep instantly.” Why does the literature fail where the paintings succeed so dazzlingly? Although, ironically, Gorey and Ballard succeed in writing a Surrealist literature all their own, come to think of it.
J.L.: Sure, and Kafka gets there with certain short, compressed pieces and Bruno Schulz can get you there but the Surrealists themselves—I just think they weren’t writers, they were provocateurs, they were visual artists, and they were theorists.
M.D.: What about a proto-Surrealist novel like Les Chants de Maldoror by Lautréamont?
J.L.: I would point to something like The Green Child by Herbert Read. I’m always looking for that essence and I find it in different places. I integrate those elements into something more traditional, more conventional, certainly more approachable on the usual terms of fiction, apart from a few short stories where I’ve gone for broke. But I’m thinking about people like Cortázar and Kōbō Abe and Kafka all the time; they’re part of how I get to where I begin.
M.D.: I’m surprised you didn’t mention Borges in the same breath.
J.L.: Oh, and Borges, absolutely; he’s very important to me. And Stanislaw Lem, who is sometimes a very ponderous cognitive writer but other times he lets his Surrealism dominate, in something like The Futurological Congress.
M.D.: You were talking about trying to equal the impact of Surrealist painters who struck a chord with you, or films or comic books, speaking of which, you sometimes seem to be doing in prose what Jack Kirby did in those mind-stretching two-page spreads in Fourth World stuff like Mister Miracle, The New Gods, and Kamandi. As you point out on your essay on him (“The Return of the King” in The Disappointment Artist: Essays ), once he was freed from the shackles of Stan Lee and allowed to indulge his weirdest tendencies, he proved he couldn’t write dialogue to save his soul, but he started doing really avant-garde stuff in the comic medium, incorporating photocollage, as he did in his godawful but sublime take on 2001. Is there any visual analogue, there, to what you try to do in your most hallucinogenic moments?
J.L.: Well, I’ve got issue number one of Kamandi hanging on my office wall, here. I revere Kirby’s baroque phase; I read it really avidly, I was always confused, I was always thrilled by it though I rarely understood everything I was responding to. Later, I came to see Kirby as exemplary of a certain kind of American vernacular Surrealism that I care for immensely and I would put him with Philip K. Dick and the most baroque and Surreal results of film noir and also of crime writing, people like David Goodis and Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford. And in almost every case one of the things that animates those creators or those movements or those works is a concealment of trauma, often war trauma, behind the inventions. There’s this frantic Surrealist agenda to tell some really urgent, catastrophic, bizarre story but what it never quite discloses is that it’s pegged on 20th-century horrors. In that way, it’s really deeply related to the origins of Dada and Surrealism to begin with; they were a reaction to World War I.
M.D.: There’s an extraordinary page in David J. Skal’s book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, where he juxtaposes a grotesque by the German Expressionist Otto Dix, titled Skin Graft, with French veterans of the Great War, so hideously disfigured by shrapnel or mustard gas they look like Dadaist collages.
J.L.: It’s where the hardboiled writers come from. One of the stupid epiphanies that shaped my life was, one day, I’d been reading Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald and Hammett so reverently and watching the Mitchum and the Bogart characters and one day I looked at these guys and I thought, “The trench coat tells you where they came from! They came from a trench.” It’s all about war trauma; that’s the undisclosed or partially disclosed trauma that inaugurates the hardboiled character. And then you start to make movements across genres: when you look at a western like The Searchers, John Wayne is staggering out of the civil war, but he’s not just a randomly psychopathic antihero, he’s a war veteran who specifies at the beginning of the movie that he declined to stick around for the surrender, so his is another kind of hardboiled story that claims to be moving forward into this western symbolic present but is still processing damage in the past. I’m really leery of such diagnoses, but I do look at Kirby in terms of war trauma very strongly; he saw tremendous horrors—he killed Germans with his bare hands.
M.D.: When you talk about being a crate-digger, seeking out the more marginal pleasures, the stuff that lives under the floorboards, I can’t help thinking of J.G. Ballard’s concept of “invisible literature,” by which he meant everything from interoffice memos to case studies from journals of deviant psychology or forensic pathology to the Warren Report to Gray’s Anatomy—texts that are light years from what the literati consider literature, but which can be read as literature, often with startling results. Has invisible literature of any sort ever beguiled you, whether or not it has inspired you as a writer?
J.L.: I probably wouldn’t reach for the term “literature” the way Ballard did to frame that connection but it’s one of the great subjects in my life and I’m quite defiant about it. You know, I grew up in a world of overlapping languages and texts. When you read Fortress of Solitude, one of the things it’s about is growing up in a city where the walls were written upon.
Between graffiti and advertising, there was language everywhere; you could read the city, the city was a grammar. Also, I come along late enough that the languages of commerce—the text on the cereal box, the secret comic book inside the chewing-gum wrapper—seemed to me to be really alive and meaningful and part of this continuum. I was reading comic books and I was reading the letters columns [in them] and I was reading the advertising. People refer to it, but I don’t think anyone ever really thinks about the implications of the advertisements in comic books—“The Insult That Made A Man Out Of ‘Mac,’” or the one about learning to play the piano, or the sea monkeys; they were as mysterious and allegorical and charged as anything. And there were also these voices creeping around the edges of things, the ‘zine culture, the early fan magazines, the letters columns.
What’s weird is that, like a lot of things, it’s very hard to explain to my students what it was like to hear about a song and not be able to hear it. You know, like, there were movies and songs that I read about, read critical paraphrases of, that haunted my imagination, and then it would take a decade before I’d find them. All we have to do now is hit the links at the bottom of the obscure articles on Wikipedia to be plunged into this realm of invisible literature, these paratexts, these endless discourses that are so immersive. I mean, last night, I was following a link on the anarchist Bob Black and I staggered my way into a corner of the Internet where there was this compilation of anarchist papers, where they read papers to one another at a conference, and it’s such an inside discourse, it’s so rich with impossibly gnarled-up references to ancient disputes among three or four anarchist sub-philosophers of 1983. This stuff is just there, everywhere, we can all dabble in this stuff endlessly; it’s always threatening to erupt, now—it’s not hard to find invisible literature, anymore.
M.D.: There are those who believe that something has really been lost in the inability to get lost; you can’t really have the cultural equivalent of what the Situationists would call a dérive anymore. It’s tough to be a flaneur in the data clouds; you don’t have that experience of wandering through the labyrinthine, dusty, untended stacks in the basement of a bookstore anymore, or pawing through crates of records. And then there are others—Steven Johnson has written a blog post arguing this point—who push back at this claim, contending that there’s more mystery and serendipity than there ever was, it’s just that the Garden of Forking Paths has moved online. Where do you come down on this question?
J.L.: It’s really an interesting question. Probably, people can locate all kinds of mystery and archival affect in online culture; it’s there in things like the anarchist conference I just described. But I’m also really into the somatics of artifacts; I surround myself with old books and always have. Fortunately, bookstores aren’t really as extinct as you suggest—you can still go into crazy old musty barns full of books—but people are constantly comparing the tablet or the interface to the book, and what they forget is that both are technologies, of course, really rich in their implications and their possibilities and their somatic magnetism, but rooms full of books—libraries, bookstores, collections—are a kind of exoskeletal brain. If anything, I find myself more and more dedicated to filling rooms with books, just having them all around me. I see books as having a power that’s really easy to underrate; I think they’re gonna keep their grip on us for a while yet.
As a novelist, one of the things that strikes me is the way my activity is still so fetishized, still has so much talismanic power for people. People are always claiming to be disappointed by individual examples [of the novel] but in doing so what they’re saying is that they still hold the promise of the novel as this holy grail. It’s this thing that they want to overtake them; people want long novels, they want to disappear in them. There’s a mind-meld going on that can’t be had elsewhere.
M.D.: Reading used to be a solitary experience. I remember reading, a few years ago, an essay by one of the technotopians, in which he was rhapsodizing about his e-reader, which enabled him not only to annotate the book he was reading but to see everyone else’s annotations: the collectivization of reading. The transformation of this, one of our last solitary pleasures, into yet another opportunity for sharing, strikes me as just ghastly—yet another example of the compulsory gregariousness foisted on us by social media.
J.L.: I can’t endure it, myself; trying to make these things and be so porously conscious of their use just doesn’t work. It’s kind of like a science-fiction story where everyone has been converted into telepaths against their will: we all hear each other thinking, and we all hear the gossip behind the walls, now, so we have to figure out what to do with these superpowers that have been thrust upon us. Sometimes it’s interesting, but it doesn’t really help.
At the same time, I don’t think that it’s so specific to the technology. One of my lifetime allergies has been to reading a book that’s just come out and everyone’s reading it, because I feel the pressure of the implicit presence of too many other opinions, too many other responses hemming me in, even if I don’t know what they are. Again and again, I fail to read the Book of the Moment; I’m always looking for something a little more arcane, or out-of-date, or even out of fashion. I read a lot of novels that I can tell myself that I’m the only human being on earth reading them at the time that I am.
M.D.: What does that say about you?
J.L.: I don’t know. I don’t know. I have some sort of craving for one-to-one conversation; I don’t like parties. I’ve often felt that I’ve probably missed some things, that there were books I would’ve liked but I got stuck feeling the reading space around them was too colonized, so I just couldn’t get excited. Sometimes it’s just that you have absorbed too many facts about what to expect; I really, really crave surprise, I want to be surprised continuously as I read.
I’ve always liked the margins more than the center. And because I did, I didn’t fixate on the idea that there’s a canon that I needed to get through before I die; that I needed to master the Great Books. I was just more thrilled that there always seemed to another thing to find: you’d read Borges and he would make you curious about G.K. Chesterton; there was always somebody behind everybody, it went on forever, and that seemed great to me.
I still feel that way. I’m always disappointed when I see people tut-tutting about “too much culture.” The past sorts things out for us, and so we have this impression that there were only 12 novelists in the 19th century and they were all good, but there’s always lots of garbage and there’s always lots of almost good stuff and pretty good stuff and it all forms the context—the environment for our understanding of what we care about. It wouldn’t make any sense at all to want the context to go away, and to want the plenty to go away.
What matters to me is individual canon formation: what’s your canon, not that there be some absolute core of texts, but that people remain delighted and possibilities are explored. I see it as kind of constellation: the universe is full of stars and you want to add some bright ones to the sky before you’re done but the presence of the backdrop, the Milky Way, this immense immensity, is only something to delight in.
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