Miami Book Fair: Jonathan Lethem

Categories: Culture
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Don't let the glasses fool you; he's a literary super hero
For fellow writers, Jonathan Lethem needs no introduction. 1999's Motherless Brooklyn, the story of a detective with Tourette's syndrome, put Lethem on the map, but by that point, he'd already written four novels that breached the genre line between science fiction and literary fiction, a line that, thanks in large part to Lethem, has more or less disappeared. A constant advocate of the fantastic and book culture in general, Lethem has spoken up for the importance of progenitors like Philip K. Dick and Italo Calvino, and like them, he seems incapable of writing a dull plot while simultaneously delivering intellectual heft.

His newest novel, though, may be his best. At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Chronic City  (Doubleday, $27.95) takes place in a modern-day Manhattan that is nevertheless as wildly inventive as one of Calvino's invisible cities, a Manhattan where a tiger is on the loose on the Upper East Side, a secret land fill has been created as an art installation, and the atmosphere is polluted by Chinese mines that prevent the protagonist's fiancee--an astronaut--from coming home. Yet a lot of the action still takes place in a music writer's apartment, where two guys are getting high and chatting about pop culture. In short, it's awesome.

When was the last time you were in Miami?

 

At the Book Fair when I was touring for Motherless Brooklyn. I was on a bill with Michael Chabon actually, and we were just becoming friends. So I have fond memories of it. I haven't seen much of the city actually, but my wife comes down all the time. She's a big Miami Beach fan.

 

You're reading along with a couple other New Yorkers: Ben Greenman and Michael Thomas. Are you guys friends?

 

Oh really? That's cool. Yes, it's a real neighborhood gang then. I run into [Ben and Mike] shopping for groceries. I used to see Michael at the gym, back when I used to go to the gym.

 

What differentiates Chronic City for you from your other novels, besides the fact that it's the first one set in Manhattan?

 

I put a lot of effort into making each novel different, but I'm especially proud of this one. It's a special book for me. But if I had any corrective for the reviews that have come out so far, I'd say most gloss over the fact that it's a really funny book. When I read it aloud, people are usually laughing. It's definitely as manic and funny as Motherless Brooklyn.

 

Speaking of reading, I heard that you're reading the entire book in Manhattan.

 

Yes, not all in one sitting though--in four different nights. It's still a marathon, and I've already fallen behind [the pre-determined page count for each night]. The finale is in December.

 

Have the same people been coming back to hear the next installment?

 

A couple, but I don't think anyone's been to every one. To be honest, if someone was at all the readings, I'd be a little scared of them.

 

I noticed there are lot of references to Norman Mailer in the book.

 

He's one of the singular figures for Perkus Tooth [the afore-mentioned music writer who befriends the protagonist, Chase Insteadman - Ed.]. For Perkus, Mailer represents the notion of a former New York City, when the city had a wide open quality to it. Mailer's a symbol of lost freedom.

 

Perkus also spends all his time surrounded by ephemeral objects--books, CD's, posters, etc. You seem to have a lot of faith in cultural objects surviving the digital age.

 

I'm old enough that I've witnessed a lot of "media revolutions" in which we were going to replace books and TV and physical sex. Yet these things are still somehow sticking around. We still have fax machines for god's sake.

 

There's a line in the beginning of the book that struck me as very prescient of the current recession. I know you started this book in 2004, so I was wondering if you'd written it pre-collapse. Describing a Wall Street banker, you write, "Reggie, I understood, was one of those who shifted the money around, trying to make it bigger. They all deserved our pity, clearly enough. The money men, effortful and exhausted, slumming through the gray fog."

 

That line was written before the recession. I was onto something, but it didn't take a genius to see that we were existing in a financial virtual reality.

 

I also heard your next book is going to be part of Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, and that it will be about the 1979 Talking Heads album, Fear of Music.

 

Yes, I'm just barely underway thinking about it, while at the same time gathering material for a new, separate novel. Growing up that record was titanic for me.

 

Jonathan Lethem reads from Chronic City on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. in Auditorium Pavilion A (Parking Lot #9).

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