LethemObsessives Unite!

Lethem Reviewed

Look, I don’t really want to write a review of Jonathan Lethem’s novels. I want to hang out with the guy. I don’t know anything about him, really, except from his books and a few articles I’ve read hither and yon, but I know that he’s obsessed with some fascinating people and things: The Searchers, Philip K. Dick, the Go-Betweens, Raymond Chandler, science run amok, alienation from one’s own self (in terms of memory loss or mental disorder), language, mind games, punk music, underground movies, epistemology, comics, race relations, genre-bending, and about a million other things that obsessive subculture junkies like myself can’t get enough of. Lethem is the erudite lightning-rod for geek culture.

The problem is that I’ve never even been to Brooklyn, Lethem’s home base, and there’s lots more interesting (and famous) people for him to talk with when he’s in Austin. I doubt that I’ll even get the chance to buy him a beer in this lifetime. Oh, well.

Fortunately, Lethem’s books are all in print and easy to purchase from any number of indie book dealers. Like many popular writers, his prose is as far from dry as a thunderstorm in the Pacific. I polished off the ones I read most recently - Girl in Landscape and Amnesia Moon in a single two-hour sitting for each. Both had the geek culture obsession I love in his writing, and both had influences worn so clearly on their sleeves that I was tempted to write out math equations for each.

However, if Lethem were simply a pop-culture listmaker, he wouldn’t have that immediate emotional resonance. Most of his books have a lived-in sensibility that belies any formulaic description. Lethem is tightly focused upon his protagonists. Even when he writes in the third-person, his point of view is specifically within the protagonist’s consciousness, and we see or feel their world. His characters may be inviting you to live in their skin for a few days, but their personality is very distinctly not yours. You will never leave a Lethem book feeling like you’ve been visiting a strange world through the eyes of a generic Everyman, as you may with some popular writers. As inviting and human as his protagonists and other characters may be, they are their own persons.

Gun, With Occasional MusicLethem’s first published novel was Gun, With Occasional Music (1994), a run through a classic Philip K. Dick-style dystopian future as seen by a Philip Marlowe type searching for a killer. Lethem’s protagonist, Conrad Metcalf, captures the patented Chandler existential despair and single-mindedness with a goofy bruise-purple descriptive eye. Lethem’s imagined future features news usually presented as a musical interpretation, a government that encourages all citizens to take drugs (Metcalf is hooked on Acceptol with a touch of Regrettol), black boxes for people to keep their memories in, karma points which gauge an individual’s relative worth to society, and animals and babies engineered to become just like adult humans through “evolution therapy.” From these somewhat jokey premises, Lethem allows the emotional depths of the characters to shine through. They are aware of their addictions and the grip that their government exerts on them. The evolved animals and babies are some of the most miserable creatures Lethem has created, tortured by the intelligence to know that they are second-class citizens and that their lives have somehow been stolen from them.

Despite all of the rich ideas Lethem throws about, though, Gun, With Occasional Music is still somewhat thin at times, with nothing but naked plot progression shining through. Although this is certainly part of Lethem’s tribute to Chandler, whose greatest books also sometimes ran thin in the same way, Lethem’s transgression is a bit harder to forgive than Chandler’s. Despite this reservation, I can say that I was floored by its wit, imagination, and humanity when I first read Gun, With Occasional Music back in 1997, and I continue to think that it’s a clear sign of the greatness that would soon bloom in Lethem’s writings.

Lethem’s next book was Amnesia Moon (1995), which was much more directly influenced by Philip K. Dick. This one has a third-person narrator, Chaos, who’s also known as Emmett Moon, but, as I point out above, the point of view stays so firmly in Chaos’s mind that he could be, essentially, a first-person narrator telling a story about himself in his own head. In this novel, some sort of psychic event has fractured the country into small enclaves of people with fluid reality and fluid memories. Each of these enclaves is led by a dreamer whose semi-lucid dreams are shared by all of the people in the vicinity and whose dreams shape the reality around them. Chaos is such a dreamer who is searching for his past.

The novel is a picaresque of sorts, as Chaos wanders from a typical post-apocalyptic community shared by mutants and normal people, through communities blinded by thick fog, through communities of enforced 1950s normality, and into San Francisco, the heart of the fracture. Lethem’s themes and light political satire are sharper than in Gun, With Occasional Music, but Amnesia Moon is not as engaging a novel. Chaos is ultimately strange and unknowable, and the coldness we feel for him most of the time translates into coldness for the book. It’s safe to say that Lethem was still struggling for his own voice at the time he wrote Amnesia Moon. It’s also significant that David Lynch has optioned the film rights for this hallucinatory, not quite baked novel.

Lethem’s only collection of short stories, The Wall Of The Sky, The Wall Of The Eye (1996) features seven stories of various strength. The first, “The Happy Man,” is as horrible a short story as I can imagine. A man who has died and been revived by technology constantly slips away to his own private hell, which has certain rules, but always ends with his rape at the hands of the Happy Man, at which point he can mentally rejoin his family. When he finally learns how to defeat the Happy Man, his hell becomes even worse. Chilling stuff. There’s a fun but somewhat trifling sci-fi short story called “Vanilla Dunk” about racism and basketball, and a not-so-fun story, “Light and the Sufferer,” about crack tearing a family up that features schmoo-like aliens who follow the soon-to-die. There’s a grotesque Dick parody about fake people at a real party, “Forever, Said the Duck.” “Five Fucks” is a fascinating story in six parts in which, as a man’s obsession with a woman grows, the universe around her changes to the point of becoming a Krazy Kat love triangle. The final two stories, “Hardened Criminals” and “Sleepy People,” follow strange developments in times of political oppression or upheaval.

It’s hard to judge how these stories fit chronologically into Lethem’s writing. Collections of short stories often don’t tell the reader when the stories were written, let alone published, and The Wall Of The Sky is no different. “The Happy Man” and “Five Fucks” seem more confident than the other five, all of which betray a greater reliance on themes borrowed from other writers. “Vanilla Dunk” is Lethem’s only story that I’ve read which confronts racism head-on, rather than with metaphor. All in all, The Wall Of The Sky, The Wall Of The Eye is an excellent book for Lethem fans, but this collection alone would be the weakest introduction to his work of any of his books.

With As She Climbed Across The Table (1997), Lethem’s voice is much clearer than in his earlier novels. The Dickean alienation of the strange and oppressive futures is severely reduced here, in favor of a cutting satire of university politics, love among the overeducated, and the nature of good taste. We’re back to a first-person narrator, the sympathetic and geeky Phillip Engstrand, a humanities professor living with a physicist. Phillip studies departmental relationships at the university; his entire world is the academy. When his girlfriend, Alice, discovers a physical anomaly that allows certain items to enter whole into a separate dimension, Phillip becomes increasingly desperate as Alice falls out of love with him in favor of the anomaly, called Lack. Lack is knowable only by the items it accepts, including people; all that the scientists (and, later, academics of all stripes) can know about Lack is which items can be passed across the table under Lack and which will disappear into the anomaly. Phillip feels bland next to such a stark arbiter of taste.

By using a more recognizable world than in his previous novels, Lethem creates a situation in which characters respond in a more recognizable, and ultimately sympathetic, way. Lethem’s commitment to his characters is more evident here. They all have an independent life, and the warmth of their reality translates into a warmer, more enjoyable read. The odd and fantastic final scene, especially, is ultimately poignant unto tragedy, showing the resolve of the still-beating heart after it has been ripped from the chest.

Girl In LandscapeLethem’s first fully-realized novel is Girl In Landscape (1998). Lethem has recast The Searchers, John Ford’s classic unsettling, revenge-obsessed nightmare of a movie, as a space Western, with Natalie Wood’s lost little girl as the protagonist. When I read it, I hadn’t yet read Lethem’s essay about his difficult relationship with The Searchers, but I could see the landscape as Monument Valley, I could see the Archbuilders (the hated natives of the alien planet) as stand-ins for the Indians of The Searchers, and I could see Efram, the longstanding human resident of the planet, as Ethan Edwards, John Wayne’s deeply flawed, racist character from The Searchers. Pella, the protagonist, is a girl verging on womanhood; her sexual awakening immediately follows her family’s move to the Planet of the Archbuilders, and coincides with her infection by alien viruses that allow her to transfer her consciousness to a particular ubiquitous mouselike native animal. With me so far?

Along the way, Lethem stops to wax McCarthyesque (Cormac, that is) about the landscape, discuss the racist ways in which the humans see the Archbuilders (lazy, stupid, childlike) and by extension, in which the Europeans saw the Native Americans, fulfill his need to deconstruct language through the Archbuilders, comment on power in small communities, and talk carefully-but-honestly about adolescent sexuality. Lethem had written smart and unusual novels to this point, but Girl In Landscape is the first that deserves to be called brilliant. His prose is more spare and yet more poetic, as if he had to write the other writers’ influences out of his work to find himself. His depiction of Efram/Ethan strikes just the right notes of nobility among the bitter hate, as if John Wayne himself were stepping in to lend a hand in the recasting of his best role. In The Searchers, Ethan is the most conflicted of characters, a man who speaks the language of the Indians but who hates and kills them, a man who despises the part-Indian boy accompanying him but who never turns his bitter violence on him, and a man who spends years searching for his captured niece with the intent of killing her but who changes his mind at the last minute. Efram captures these same contradictions, speaking the language and seeking the company of the Archbuilders while hating them, chasing men off for sexual indecency while allowing himself to cautiously woo the barely teenaged Pella, and providing a center for his community while destroying it.

The way that Lethem tells the story of Girl In Landscape while conveying the richer meanings within with clean, crisp prose reminds me of Nabokov, but Lethem, unlike Nabokov, isn’t interested in consciously untrustworthy narrators or wrapping meanings within meanings. This is not to say that his stories lack depth, but that Lethem’s narrator is sweetly honest, and the hidden meanings are less like one of Nabokov’s games of chess and more of a sundrenched poker game, with Lethem’s steady eyes hiding flush metaphors.

Motherless BrooklynLethem’s brilliance continues in the Dashiel Hammett-on-acid-homage Motherless Brooklyn (1999). Plucking elements that worked from his previous books, Lethem sets Motherless Brooklyn in the Brooklyn of now, and uses the hardboiled gangster genre to pull a beautiful story out of Lionel Essrog, his Tourette’s-inflicted protagonist. Lionel and three other orphans have been working for Frank Minna, a small-time hood with dreams of running a detective agency, since they were teenagers. Minna is murdered at the beginning of the novel, and Essrog, grief-stricken, searches for his killer against the backdrop of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and finally up the East Coast. Unlike Chandler’s existential knight walking these mean streets (with sometimes no motivation to behave as the plot dictates they will), Hammett’s protagonists tended to think and work methodically, almost obsessively, and Lethem has seized upon that obsession as a sign of mental illness (the creators of the TV show Monk have subsequently seized upon the same idea, and doubtlessly should be paying Lethem royalties).

Essrog’s Tourette’s Syndrome interrupts his investigation in every social situation, but also leads him to single-mindedly pursue Minna’s killer until he unravels the whole mess. Lethem never lets Hammett push him around, however, unlike his more subservient role to Chandler in Gun, With Occasional Music. Lethem’s clearly in charge with this novel, and takes the time to touch upon his own obsessions. The passage on Essrog’s love for Prince, in particular (he finds kinship with Prince and suspects the Purple One of also suffering from Tourette’s), pleases my pop-culture geekitude to no end. I would have a hard time choosing between this book and Girl In Landscape, and since I don’t have to, I won’t.

Lethem’s most recent book is the novella The Shape We’re In (2001). The story (again with the first-person narrator) follows Henry Farbur, an ex-military type, as he searches for his son through a strange culture all living within what seem to be actual organs of The Shape. Farbur grows in rank and stature as he approaches the head of The Shape, although he seems to be determined to squander it. When he reaches the brain, he discovers the truth behind The Shape and his responsibility, and we the readers must think about the consequences of this truth to us. It’s a slight EP of a book, but it shares the strengths of Lethem’s confidence in his voice, and it gave Lethem fans something funny and satirical to chew on in the four years since Motherless Brooklyn.

Lethem’s next book, The Fortress of Solitude, is due out in September. According to Doubleday’s website, it looks like it’s going to tackle head-on Lethem’s experiences growing up white in black neighborhoods of Brooklyn. I can guarantee that I will not yet have bought the man a beer, but I’ll be looking for him when he comes through town.

Hey, Jonathan, my man! I’ll be the guy in the Mekons t-shirt looking to talk about the Go-Betweens and revisionist Westerns. See if you can peel yourself away from Neal Pollack for a while, or, what the hell, bring him along. I’m good for a pint!

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