If you like your books shot through with pop cultural awareness, literary ingenuity and equal helpings of levity and eye-widening insight, Jonathan Lethem is your author. This year saw the release of his most recent short story collection, Lucky Alan, and it’s another great addition to a bibliography that includes the National Book Critics’ Circle Award winning novel, Motherless Brooklyn, as well as the acclaimed and bestselling The Fortress of Solitude. Lethem appeared at the LA Festival of Books this weekend, so we talked about his enjoyment of that gathering, his new collection and why he’ll always love the eccentric aspects of culture.
What do you think the purpose of a literary gathering like the LA Festival of Books is in the 21st century?
Lethem: People like to get a gander at these weird, troll-like creatures that write the books. My sweet spot for it is that it’s a physical gathering, a flash mob bookstore. It’s a place where people are enacting this interest and there are piles of books for them to check out in person and have autographed. That’s a pretty good thing. The lack of bookstores is painful and a deprivation. Being something that’s a place, a physical space, a destination that’s about this thing you care so much about, that pushes it back into the space where bodies congregate is a pretty great situation. Plus, the weather’s really great in LA so you can be guaranteed to have an open air festival.
Does LA’s literary scene strike as having any particular character as opposed to other places you’ve been?
Lethem: I’m not sure I have a comprehensive view of it if there is one to be had. It’s very hard to say what any literary scene is like because you’re talking about your own subjective impressions or point of entry. I’m off to one side in LA proper, in Claremont, a college town off in the desert. I would say LA is obviously underrated as a reading town. It’s a town where people are reading books very avidly. What’s interesting about it in comparison to a place like New York is it doesn’t have the publishing industry in it. An event like this is much less driven by the publicists and the mechanism of a publishing industry that something in New York or closer to New York would be. The New York publishing industry doesn’t really seem to get LA. They’re glad that it’s there, they can tell there are readers here, but it’s so distant from that Manhattan center of operations and it’s so hard to get a handle on from that distance. It’s much more driven by the readers, the venues, the booksellers, the magazines like Black Clock or The Los Angeles Review of Books. You’re playing out from under the control of the official masters of the industry.
Do you have a favorite bookstore in LA?
Lethem: I’m crazy for Skylight. They’re really welcoming to me and I love debuting books by having a reading there. I’ve had a great time at Book Soup too but it’s a little further west from where I am now, so I don’t get there as often. Anyone who likes used bookstores has to be pretty crazy for The Last Bookstore. Unbelievable. Heaven for book hounds. I love the way they use that space as a zone of weird marvels, like the architecture was built of discarded books.
You’re participating in a panel on short stories at the festival. When it comes to those sorts of panels, do you go in with your talking points or just wing it?
Lethem: I do wing it. Not because I’m lazy or I’ve forgotten my talking points, but because what would the talking points even be for a short story collection? “I wrote them.” “I’m really glad somebody was willing to publish them.” [Laughs] It’s a friendly scene. With this panel, I’m already buddies with the people on it. I’m old, old friends with both Aimee Bender and Kelly Link so it’ll be a chance to hang out with people I like and I’d be gratified to answer any questions that come up. But to represent myself as a short story writer is just to say, “Wow! Yep, I wrote those. What do you think? Is there anything I can try to explain? Did I hurt your feelings? I’m sorry.” I’m just there to say I’m glad we’re all still writing short stories at this late date. My talking points are minimal.
The styles you adopt throughout your latest collection, Lucky Alan, vary quite a bit. Do you feel short stories give you a venue to experiment more than you would otherwise?
Lethem: I’m always a little balky about the word “experiment.” Real literary experiments are far and few between. We all know them because they’re shocking experiences like reading Gertrude Stein or William S. Burroughs or the language poets. That’s amazing, important work so to say any work any writer does that seems a little unusual, dingbatty or not exactly predictable is experimental is dishonoring to the idea of what an experiment really is.
But I’m definitely working in a variety of styles and, of course, short stories are an opportunity for me to do things formally which are a little more pressured or specific. It’d be intolerable at the length of a novel to push each sentence to deform the way the sentences or the paragraphs are working. You wouldn’t want to do it in a novel and it wouldn’t even suggest itself. I delight in the occasion short stories can be for testing some of my own capacities. I don’t presume I’m a really an experimentalist. My friend Christopher Sorrentino says it well and really beautifully, “I’m less interested in doing something that’s never been done before than I am in doing something I’ve never done before.” Some of the stories are that kind of challenge to myself but, in other cases, I feel like I’m working in a very familiar mode. It’s just, by now, 30-odd years into writing fiction, I have a lot of familiar modes so to rope nine different stories together in a collection, you can see different aspects of what I like to do. A couple of them might seem unfamiliar to a reader coming to them after only reading my last few novels but, in fact, they hearken back to the way I began. They’re styles and methodologies of writing I was using back in my 20s. A collection becomes a smorgasbord or potpourri of different takes on what I can do.
Is there anything you feel is unifying between all of them?
Lethem: I trust my stuff is going to come out me no matter what I do. That seems to take care of itself. [Laughs] I’m helplessly stuck in my own obsessions and traits. There are even things in the voice of anything I write, no matter how much I might think I’m reinventing the terms, where I still sound like myself. I don’t think there’s any need to seek unity, I just think seeking diversity makes the way the unifying properties of my writing will display themselves all the more interesting because they’re emerging in these different recipes. The collection, to me, has some unifying themes. There are all these doublings: there’s the terrier who comes up in more than one story, the book begins and ends with pregnancies, even the way the dog curls around the pregnant stomach in the final story and the way the character the woman fondles the woman’s pregnancy in the first story and it becomes a disaster. So, for me, I saw all these funny motifs running through it and it helped me think about it as a book and which stories to put in it and where. Those echoes and the ways the stories were speaking back to each other became very important. But I don’t know. When people read short story collections, they don’t always read them front to back. They don’t even necessarily read all the stories in them. A writer might fancy they’re putting together a collection that’s very coherent as a book but it’s not necessarily destined to be utilized that way.
“Their Back Pages” is a particularly zany story in the collection. I loved the conceit of a bunch of peripheral, discarded characters all trying to survive on an island together. Could you talk a bit about that?
Lethem: Yeah, by now, my interest and feeling of kinship with abandoned, ephemeral commercial art like the superheroes that didn’t make it or lost songs in pop music history is pretty established. Basically, popular art that was never popular. [Laughs] It speaks to me in ways I find mysterious so I’m always thinking about it at some level. The way this story arose was to think of the characters as people in the Pirandello play 6 Characters in Search of an Author, or there’s a Twilight Zone episode with all the lost toys at the bottom of a trash bin trying to figure what their universe consists of. At the same time, I was fooling around with the desert island archetype because I was watching a lot of Lost. I’d never consciously connected Lost with Gilligan’s Island or the Pirandello play but then I started to think about the goofy situation of the lost amnesiac characters in this weird metafictional vacuum and what they would make of it. So I started to also look at the story as a compilation of ephemera. It’s sort of doubly about the collector’s or archivist’s mentality. Around the time, I was also reading this really great book of critical writings about newspaper comic strips by Donald Phelps. I think I worked his name into the story. There’s something so compelling to me but also so absurd about the grinding away of scholarly power on things the creators never meant to be lasting. It excites me and it also embarrasses me.
You wrote a book about Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and another on John Carpenter’s They Live. How have current forms of pop culture influenced your writing in general?
Lethem: The reason I’m always wearing it on my sleeve and writing these critical pieces is that I’ve drawn so much sustenance from the mad vitality of 20th century vernacular culture. I’m always resistant to the term pop culture because so much of what I like in it wasn’t ever popular and also because it seems to be used to draw a boundary between high and low culture which doesn’t mean as much as people want it to mean. It always suggests you’re on one side or the other and I’ve never felt it working that way for me. The stuff I like tends to be eccentric and forge its own connections to things outside of its own registry. The kinds of comic books I liked most almost always had literary aspirations. They were always fooling around with some weird amalgam of high and low modes. The way these things interrogate culture and woke me up to aspects of the world I was living in seemed permanently enlivening. I fooled around with wanting to be a painter, a filmmaker, a cartoonist but landed in this traditional, lately seen as austere, role of writing fiction. I never thought fiction was the only place my creative agitation was coming from. It was always coming from a lot of different things and I wanted it to reflect those things. Writing right into the teeth of those influences, writing fiction about pop music or people who care inordinately about pop music and that kind of thing, seemed like a way of staying alive to the stuff that had given me so much.