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Magazine: The Life & Times of Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, Pomona College's Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing

Were this a novel, Jonathan Lethem’s recent appointment as Pomona’s Roy Edward Disney ’51 Professor in Creative Writing would be a perfect plotline with a neat mix of irony and fateful balance. But things in real life just don’t work out that way. Except, of course, when they do.

Thirty years ago, Lethem left his family’s ersatz commune in a remodeled brownstone in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood to join the well-heeled student body of Bennington College in Vermont. It wasn’t a good fit for the art-student son of a Bohemian painter, and partway through his third semester Lethem took a powder, eventually landing in the Bay Area. He also punted his plans to follow in the footsteps of his father as a working painter, deciding instead to write. He worked in bookstores, wrote when he could, moved around a lot, married a couple of times, began publishing science-fiction influenced novels and ultimately never quite got around to finishing his bachelor’s degree.

Yet here he is, a fully tenured professor at Pomona. “You’re looking at a tenured sophomore on leave, is what you’re looking at,” Lethem says, laughing. He points out, though, that he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Pratt Institute in May (along with recent National Book Award winner and poet/singer Patti Smith and director Steven Soderbergh, neither of whom earned bachelor’s degrees, either). “So, you’re now looking at a tenured-full-professor-with-a-doctor-of-letters sophomore on leave.”

Lethem, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and among the most critically-acclaimed writers of his generation, has taken one of the more enticing creative-writing posts in the country. The author of Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude will be teaching a three-course load for the academic year. Each semester will include a writing workshop, and he’ll teach a basic literature course every other semester. This spring, it’s Topics in Contemporary Fiction.

The rest of the time Lethem is expected to continue to do what he has done for the past three decades: Write. It’s a remarkable platform of stability for someone engaged in what is generally a very unstable way of making a living. “The job has total security,” Lethem says. “It’s just so lavish that way.”

Some 75 people applied for the position, which came open in September 2008 with the tragic death of author David Foster Wallace, a fellow MacArthur winner best known for his sprawling, footnoted and satire-heavy novel Infinite Jest.

Lethem “is the most distinguished, and has the biggest national reputation, of anybody who applied,” says Kevin Dettmar, the professor and English Department chair who led the search committee. But, he adds, the decision became more difficult when all three finalists for the job visited campus.

After the interviews and guest lectures, Lethem emerged as the top choice, in part, Dettmar says, because of the sweep of his interests, from intellectual property rights to music, film and mass media. “He’s coming at a time when media studies had recently separated off from the English Department and become independent,” Dettmar says. “He’s one of the people who I hope will keep us connected because his work teaches both disciplines. That’s something that was stronger in his file than the other candidates.”

Lethem has also been proficient at maintaining a relatively high public profile in an era in which books, and authors, tend to be eclipsed by pop performers and movie actors. “Not only has his fiction received consistent acclaim, but he’s smart and adept at riffing on everything from ’80s movies--in his new book, They Live--to copyright issues, in his notable 2007 essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ in Harper’s,” says Carolyn Kellogg, a blogger and writer on books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.

She points to Lethem’s ability to fluidly shift from genre to genre and from topic to topic. “Most writers do one thing and kind of stick to it, but Lethem’s [writing] is constantly changing. It shows an ongoing evolution that makes him one of the most interesting writers of his generation.”

It’s tempting to look at Lethem’s appointment within the prism of Wallace’s six years as the inaugural Disney professor. Yet their work has little in common beyond generation and a tendency to bridge genres.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of obvious resonance on our approaches, or even our outward styles,” Lethem says. “He and I happen to stake out very different stances, and it’s partly where we come from. … His footing is in the sciences and philosophy. The way he came to fiction was from the outside. I’m almost the opposite. I came to fiction from the inside, from art itself.”

Despite their generational links, Lethem and Wallace never met. “We had one of the longest-running, not-quite-acquaintanceships you can have” that, Lethem says, began in college, when a childhood friend of his became close to Wallace while studying at Amherst. “When I was 19 years old, I had a friend who was saying, ‘You guys are both writing fiction, you’d love each other, you should meet.’ So going back that far I had the sense that I was going to one of these days know Dave,” he says. “But it persisted in not happening.”

Though the full-time faculty post is new for Lethem, he has taught before as a visiting writer to M.F.A. programs and recently part time at New York University. Those experiences have framed the approach he’ll take leading the Pomona workshops, which he described as playing off the “intensity of the work … that the students are doing.”

“You rely on their commitment to make something extraordinary, and you ride on top of that,” Lethem says. “As a teacher, I have great hope here. I’ve already seen some remarkable undergraduate fiction.”

Some of that undergraduate fiction is bound to be unpolished, but Lethem can relate with that stage of the evolution of a writer. “I wrote many hundreds of pages of unreadable dreck,” Lethem says of his early efforts. “We’ll all be servants, not masters, of this pursuit. And it’s humbling, but really extraordinary, too.”

Lethem was born in Brooklyn in 1964, the first of Richard and Judith Lethem’s three children. When he was a toddler, the family lived in Kansas City, Mo., where his father taught at the Art Institute, and then moved back to Brooklyn after his parents’ involvement in anti-war protests ran afoul of the school administration. In his autobiographical essay, “Lives of the Bohemians,” Lethem tells of the fallout when his father organized an all-day teach-in and “… the institute’s president, inflamed by phone calls from trustees concerned about his grip on the faculty, arrived in person and got into a comical shoving match with my father, in a stairwell. C’est la tenure.”

His parents divorced a few years later, but reunited when his political-activist mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, just as Lethem was entering his teen years. She gave Lethem a typewriter for his 14th birthday, and died a short time later. The loss haunts his work in ways both blatant—the similar death of the mother character is one of the first events in Girl in Landscape--and subtle. His mother’s absence (his father is still alive) forms a void, he has explained several times, at the heart of his fiction.

“Each of my novels, antic as they sometimes are, is fueled by loss,” Lethem wrote near the end of his essay on his mother, “The Beards,” “I find myself speaking about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world.”

Yet even more pervasive in his work has been pop culture and what Lethem prefers to call “vernacular arts”--science fiction and pulp novels, pop music and comic books. And, always, the movies.

“Hollywood films, almost more than any of them, is the most consistently renewable resource in my relationship to the vernacular arts,” Lethem says. “A lot of the fiction I care most for in the 20th century was in a kind of argument with, and engagement with, film. You see it in Nabokov. You see it in Graham Greene. It fed my own work very directly.”

Science fiction also figures heavily. In several of his books, Lethem creates alternative universes, including moving his family of protagonists from post-apocalyptic Brooklyn to the Planet of the Archbuilders in Girl in Landscape. In his most recent novel, Chronic City, a tiger destroys buildings in a Manhattan swept by a mesmerizing fog.

“Science fiction is part of that embrace” of film, Lethem says. It’s not “some intentionally provocative or slumming, kind of down-market gesture. It’s just something that I cared for immensely and began to want to try to translate into my own language. … I tend to look at culture from a shameless countercultural perspective. For me, the embrace of disreputable art form feels native in the same way that radical politics are native to me.”

Motherless Brooklyn, generally described as a genre-bending detective story featuring a sleuth with Tourette’s syndrome, was Lethem’s breakthrough novel, winning awards from the National Book Critics Circle, Salon and the Macallan “Gold Dagger,” as well as being named a book of the year by Esquire magazine. It firmly established Lethem as part of a growing literary scene in Brooklyn, where these days novelists pepper the coffee shops like screenwriters in Los Angeles.

Yet few of Lethem’s works are set in Brooklyn, or were written there, which leaves him somewhat confounded by perceptions that he is part of a Brooklyn mafia of young-turk novelists.

“Generally, I’ve written more in exile from that place than I have in Brooklyn,” Lethem says. “At the beginning of my writing life I was living in the Bay Area, and I’m obsessed with the West. The Bay Area represented a kind of safe recognizable frontier for me. It threw me 3,000 miles from everything familiar, then recreated all sorts of familiarities. Berkeley in particular felt like a snow globe of my parent’s ideals that had been preserved. I grew up inside that hippie dream, in a way, and I found a consoling shred of it in the Bay Area.”

Now that he’s in the West again, Lethem is gazing eastward for his next novel: A look at New York City--heavy on Queens and Greenwich Village-—in the 1950s, an era that fascinates Lethem.

The author-professor is slowly filling a shelf in his Crookshank Hall office with books on the founding of the New York Mets baseball team, the mayoralty of John Lindsey, Robert Moses and his construction projects. “I’m researching the era that just precedes my own consciousness of New York,” Lethem says. “It’s really my mother’s New York, my parents’ New York.” Lethem, who has been on campus since October, doesn’t expect to have problems balancing the regimen of teaching, engaging with the Pomona College community (he and his family have already settled into a house they bought a few minutes from campus) and continuing his writing. Having spent the last two decades “in constant negotiation” with the entities that “seem to be trying to keep you from writing,” Lethem has reached a conclusion: “Nobody is trying to stop you from writing. You just have to structure your day so that you get to it.” In that, he’s been getting some unexpected help from his two offspring. “I’m blessed right now with children that wake me up at 5 in the morning,” says Lethem. “So I have a lot of time before any student would knock on the door.”

A Reading List of "Cities," Labyrinths," "Brains"

Jonathan Lethem’s two courses this spring are a writing workshop and Topics in Contemporary Fiction, a basic English literature class he has envisioned as focusing on “impossible novels ... ever so slightly in honor of [David Foster] Wallace.” The reading list consists of “the most willful and encompassing and singular kinds of novels that seem simultaneously to most attract and most dismay people,” Lethem says. “These are books that are cities, that are labyrinths, that are brains, that you have to give yourself over to entirely or there’s no hope whatsoever.”

The list:
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. “Pretty much officially the greatest novel you never heard of, according to Randall Jarrell, Jonathan Franzen, and myself among others. Christina Stead’s masterpiece is like falling into a whole other family not your own, with all the attendant love, horror, boredom and confusion that suggests.”

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. “A kit for constructing your own novel, as well as for constructing yourself as a (conscious) reader. The alternate table of contents is an early harbinger of, among other things: the Internet, Postmodernism and Wallace’s Infinite Jest.”

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch. “The most Shakespearean of novelists, Murdoch’s probably the ringer on this list, full of old-fashioned story-telling verve, philosophical and psychological ‘fullness,’ cliff-hanger scenes of characters hiding in closets and so forth. But sometimes the old-fashioned virtues are the most disconcerting of all, when you take a close look at them.”

Dhalgren by Samuel Delany. “There really are no books more like whole worlds than the mammoth, sprawling, yet microscopically intense Dhalgren. You could go on reading it forever and never find the same thing twice, but you’d be guaranteed to meet yourself in there, somewhere, each time.”

The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. “A summit of self-conscious literary artifice, yet also warm, humane and unstoppably silly, like a mad verbal dance. Did I mention that I like all these books? I like all these books.”

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. “Probably the first substantial advance in the matter of ‘dreamlike waking consciousness’ in the novel since Kafka.”

Bye-bye, Brooklyn

Author Jonathan Lethem’s decision to leave his native New York for the Pomona College job out West drew plenty of attention from the press and in the blogosphere. Here’s a sampling of the reaction in outlets ranging from literary to lowbrow:

The hometown Brooklyn Paper was mournful: “Take a good look at Jonathan Lethem—this will be the last time you see one of Brooklyn’s most important authors as a resident of the borough … So Friday night’s reading by the once and former ‘Bard of Boerum Hill’ … was a bit of a funeral.”

The New Yorker’s “Book Bench” blog maintained a measured tone, noting that a “change of scenery has worked for Lethem in the past” and giving the author a chance to explain that most of Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude were written far away from New York: “The longing and exile are part of my relationship to writing about this place,” Lethem explained.

The tabloid New York Post began its piece with predictable bombast: “Brooklyn novelist Jonathan Lethem is pulling a Walter O’Malley— abandoning his beloved borough for sunny California in the same slap-in-the-face way the reviled Dodgers owner did in 1958.” The Curbed NY blog couldn’t hide the hurt either: “Celebrities have left brownstone Brooklyn before (Jennifer Connelly, Heath Ledger, etc.), but none of those defections sting like the loss of author Jonathan Lethem to—ack!—California.”

The West Coast-based Black Clock literary journal’s blog attempted to feel Brooklyn’s pain, noting that his fans see Lethem as “synonymous with New York.” “With novels like Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude that have so deeply imbibed into their pages the grit of New York City, it is impossible to separate the two … but this spring he is set to do the unthinkable. Brooklyn will be sure to bemoan turning Lethemless in 2011 when he trades in New York for Los Angeles as the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College.”

Former Los Angeles Times writer Scott Timberg’s West Coast culture blog, The Misread City, carried an air of triumph: “Jonathan Lethem is well known to readers of The Misread City as one of the most consistently fascinating American novelists. Nearly all the writers we celebrate here are West Coast figures—Dick, Le Guin, Chabon, Chandler, Ross MacDonald—and Lethem has stood out as a kind of token Brooklyner. But Lethem … has finally seen the light. He moves to Claremont, just east of L.A., in about a month, and begins teaching at Pomona College in January.”