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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Interviewing Jonathan Lethem
Via Rake's Progress comes The Morning News's interview with forthcoming Backwards City #3 contributor* Jonathan Lethem, whose comments in the interview explode the gap between fiction and nonfiction, between realism and experimentalism, and between literature and a quilting bee, among other things. I'm tempted to just quote the darn whole thing, but I ought not, so here's what I thought was by far the most important bit, about the widespread, inexplicable critical uneasiness with the speculative/the experimental/the surreal/the what-have-you:
JL: ...Certainly, yes, there’s a kind of relentless bad faith expressed when reviewers or critics remark on one element in a novel as though it’s a remarkable piece of metaphor or surrealism, as though they’ve never encountered such a thing before. They’re shocked, just shocked that something is being proposed—they act as though it is utterly unfamiliar to them, what they really mean is that they object to it on principle, on class or political grounds like those I just described. So, by reacting as though the incursion were new, instead of familiar, it permits a kind of disingenuous head-scratching: “Hmm, perhaps this new method is of interest, or could be, in the hands of the most serious of writers. We’ll have to watch closely and see.” You saw this happening when Roth’s new book was reviewed. Roth’s use of the “alternate history” was treated, in certain quarters, as though, first of all, Roth himself had never written a book that challenged mimetic propriety—suddenly The Breast didn’t exist, suddenly The Great American Novel didn’t exist. Suddenly Counterlife didn’t exist. To write about this thing with a 10-foot pole, and say, “What’s this strange method? What have we got here? One of the great pillars of strictly realist fiction has inserted something very odd into his book. We’ll puzzle over this as though it’s unprecedented.” It was as though there had been no Thomas Pynchon. As though Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Angela Carter, Robert Coover had been thrown into the memory hole. Was there never a book called The Public Burning? Do we really have to retrace our steps so utterly in order to reinscribe our class anxieties? Not to mention, of course, the absolute ignorance of international writing implicit in the stance: where’s Cortazar, Abe, Murakami, Calvino, and so very many others? Well, the status quo might argue, patronizingly, those cute magical-realist methods—how I despise that term—are fine for translated books, but we here writing in English hew to another standard of ‘seriousness.’ Not to mention, of course, the quarantine that’s been implicitly and silently installed around genre writing that uses the same method as Roth’s with utmost familiarity. Well, the status quo might argue, sounding now like an uncle in a P.G. Wodehouse novel: Ah, yes, well, we all know that stuff is, how do you say it, old boy? Rather grubby. No, I say, no. This isn’t good enough, not for the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, in 2004. Let me say it simply: there is nothing that was proposed in Roth’s book that could be genuinely unfamiliar to a serious reader of literary fiction of the last 25 years, 30 years, 50 years. To treat it as unfamiliar is a bogus naiveté—one that disguises an attack on modernism itself, in the guise of suspiciousness about what are being called post-modern techniques. It actually reflects a discomfort with the entire century.

RB: Seemingly smart and savvy people fall prey to this impulse.

JL: I agree. Which is why I was so exercised. It’s not remarkable when some well-meaning but misguided, not particularly well-read reviewer from a not-trendsetting newspaper says, “Oh wow, what have we here? Roth’s history isn’t real history.” But when responsible critics with access to the wealth of methods and motifs and strategies that have been employed in contemporary fiction, American fiction, play at being unsettled by the deployment of such an overtly familiar technique, what they’re doing is retrenching. They’re pulling up the drawbridge. I think there’s a lot of that going on right now.
Oh, hell, I'll quote twice, because I've thought a lot about one question of Robert's ("Where is the seam or break in your career trajectory?") when thinking about Lethem, and I was glad to see him answer it:
JL: There’s a big one right now. A lot of people are led, understandably, to thinking of Fortress as a break with what proceeded it. In my view, though, it’s the opposite. Fortress is the culmination of what I’d been doing to that point. It recapitulates almost every interest and every concern of the early books, and utilizes all the tools I’d accumulated, all the methods and motifs I had been exploring and gathering.

RB: They think that because it’s more personal and—

JL:—yes, and because it’s twice as long as the other books, and because it has a more extensive commitment to mimetic tricks. Since it’s so personal, it can seem that I must have shaken off what I was doing in order to get to that place, but actually what I’d been doing led inevitably to that effort. It’s the work that comes next that’s a real break. Precisely because I’ve now discharged a lot of my original material by exploring it in this immense fiction—and then going even further with the essays, explaining some of the personal material that fueled that fiction. So, I’m not bloody likely to need to transpose childhood trauma into Marvel comics again—for perhaps the rest of my life (laughs again).
Read the whole thing™.

*We just found out about this. He and the also-excellent Chris Offut have given us a collaborative humor piece. It, too, is excellent. Backwards City has arrived. Backwards City #3 will overturn paradigms and unsettle small minds. Perhaps you should subscribe?

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