Jonathan Lethem: “My intent to skewer is practically nonexistent”
He talks to Salon about his new book “Lucky Alan,” comics, fans and adoring his characters—even the difficult ones
by MATT BELL
I started reading Jonathan Lethem with “Amnesia Moon,” maybe five or six years after it first came out. A teacher had suggested the book, after seeing me struggle with the more realist selections of the typical undergrad creative writing syllabus of the early 2000s, and almost immediately I was hooked, on both that book and Lethem’s writing in general. “Amnesia Moon” is an intoxicating but very strange novel — perhaps Lethem’s strangest, at least for me — and so I was surprised, in 2003, to find myself reading “The Fortress of Solitude,” with its much more grounded period setting beginning in 1970s Brooklyn.
I would soon immerse myself in the rest of Lethem’s books, and this range became one of the most exciting aspects of reading his novels and stories and essays: His interests are broad, his obsessions deep and his influences both announced and fully explored, engaged, built upon. If Lethem has topics or time periods or genres he returns to frequently, it feels to me less like a tic or a limitation and more like an indication that something is not yet finished, that his unshed obsessions return often to further provoke his imagination into new stories.
Jonathan Lethem’s “Lucky Alan” is his first short story collection since 2004’s “Men and Cartoons,” collecting the stories written in the decade that followed. In the years between, he’s published three novels, including 2013’s “Dissident Gardens,” and a slew of other projects in other genres, including penning a reboot of the comic book “Omega the Unknown”; collecting two books of essays, including “The Ecstasy of Influence,” titled after his provocative Harper’s essay of the same name; editing a volume of selections of Philip K. Dick’s journals; and another nonfiction book on The Talking Heads album “Fear of Music” for the popular 33 1/3 series. Our conversation with Lethem discusses how stories in “Lucky Alan” were written, as well as what changed (and what stayed the same) throughout this busy and productive decade.
Once I was a few stories into “Lucky Alan,” I started thinking about the book’s ordering, wondering if you’d consciously decided to start with two of the more realist stories — the title story and “The King of Sentences” — before moving on to stranger fare, like “Traveler Home,” where the protagonist is given a baby by a pack of wolves, or “Procedure in Plain Air,” with its surreal “installation” involving a man left in a hole outside a coffee shop, “an inverted phone booth of dirt and rubble.” But then a friend mentioned seeing you read “Procedure in Plain Air” at Skylight Books in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, where he reported that you’d said the stories appear here in the order they were written.
That answers one question but begs another: How do you chart the progress of your interests in the short story over that time? Does “Pending Vegan,” the last story, complete some line of artistic thought that began with the first, “Lucky Alan,” or is the book simply a method of collecting all the short work of a certain period in one place?
Q.: I’ve got at least 12 answers to this question, depending on whether I grab it by trunk or tail or some other appendage. Somewhere I once read a pragmatic assertion that the way to order a story collection is to put the best story first and the second-best last and the rest anywhere you like. I do think “Lucky Alan” and “Pending Vegan” are the two most satisfying and complete stories I’ve written, or at least that were uncollected. When I threw them into those positions, just to see what that looked like, I noticed immediately that one was the earliest piece in the book, and the other the most recent. Putting them in chronological sequence made for a quick solution to what probably wasn’t an important question in the first place: Does anybody typically read a story collection from beginning to end? (Of course many would say I could quit that rhetorical question sooner: Does anybody typically read a story collection?)
A.: Of course, I may have forgotten or been mistaken or be lying about the order of writing of some of the stories between those two. I jiggered the sequence at some point to make for what I thought would be a better alternation of the “more realist” with the “stranger fare” — though we might differ on what’s strange. In the experience of their maker, “The King of Sentences,” for instance, is stranger than “Procedure in Plain Air.” The first is an unrepeatable language pratfall, the second a pretty methodological fiction, putting two incommensurate things together and playing out the result. That one feels traditional to me. But that’s just the experience of the maker.