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Jonathan Lethem On 'Lucky Alan,' Sea World And Sci-Fi

02/26/2015 09:22 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2015
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The protagonist of a story from Jonathan Lethem’s new collection, “Pending Vegan,” describes himself to readers as a pending vegan. In fact, he’s privately renamed himself Pending Vegan. He’s at Sea World with his kids, who are desperate to see an orca, yet internally anguished over the cruelty of the amusement park. He’s horrified by the barbarism of meat-eating, which is why he's chosen to become a vegan -- but not yet. He's still pending. But at least he cares, right?

Lethem’s taut, darkly funny new collection, Lucky Alan, excels at creating these moments of absurdity that exist not merely for their own sake, but on some level to expose our own tendency to accept the unacceptable, to live hypocritically, and to assuage our guilt with comforting words and superficialities rather than meaningful action.

He wrote the stories in the collection over the past decade, spanning the years in which he published the offbeat rom-com You Don’t Love Me Yet and Chronic City, the sprawling tale of an oddball group of friends in Manhattan with unexpected flourishes of magical realism. “I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever stop writing at least one short story I really liked every year, no matter what else I was doing with novels or teaching,” Lethem says, “so I think [Lucky Alan] is sort of exactly the result.”

In a recent phone conversation with The Huffington Post, Lethem talked about the process of putting together Lucky Alan, the complex family history that inspires his writing, and his thoughts on marijuana legalization, Sea World and Guantanamo Bay.

On writing short stories vs. novels:

“Novels take a while, and in their way they’re like these accidental documentaries of your life in the years it takes to write them, but story collections are even more like a kind of weird photo album,” he said, noting the wide range in form and subject matter among the stories in Lucky Alan. “They really capture different little pinhole moments in a writer’s time and attention, and for me, my different interests.”

On “growing up in the shadow” of the wild and crazy boomer generation:

“My relationship to the boomer, hippie, world-gobbling, utopian, mythic quality that a lot of my parents and their friends had, and growing up in the shadow of that, I think, cast me forever in the Prince Hal or Flaky Foont role. I’m always the one looking at the character who’s bigger and crazier, because I think that was, in a way, my relationship to my parents and their friends. We were saddled with this legacy of being not as big as those guys.”

This dynamic shows up in his frequent exploration of the archetypal relationship between “the younger, and usually a little bit more square, character who’s attaching themselves to this problematic, provocative dreamer or creator, who gives them access to a larger world but is also somehow not able to root themselves in reality.”

He also credited other fictional examples of this archetype that influenced him, from "Citizen Kane" to Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Prince Hal.

How his family’s history informs all of his fiction:

“That material is alive in my feeling about life no matter whether it’s really obviously named the way it was in Dissident Gardens or not,” he said of his most recent novel, a novel based on his family’s roots in the New York radical scene. The faithfully realist approach was a departure from his typical sci-fi or surrealist fiction, but he emphasized that the subject matter was, essentially, the same.

“I think for other people there can sometimes be this sense of my pulling the veil off or saying ‘let me just talk about my real experience,’ but I feel like I’m always talking about my sense of reality.”

What motivates his writing:

“I pretty much don’t ever wish to fix the way other people think about things. I’m more inclined to try to understand why I’m the way I am.”

Why genre fiction shouldn’t be stigmatized in the literary community:

“It just seems to me that, of course, once you’ve read a writer like Samuel Delaney or Stanislaw Lem, or once you’ve really just grasped that things that Don DeLillo or Ursula Le Guin or Donald Barthelme or Angela Carter were doing were rooted in the same fundamental preserve of literary possibilities that these disreputable genre writers were working from, it seems that there’s nothing you can do except cast away these silly quarantines and say, ‘Well, what about the work? Is it amazing? Does the writing do something? Does it nourish you? Does it surprise you?’ And that’s just all there is. There’s just nothing else.”

On the unlikely parallels between book snobbery and racism or sexism:

Though glad for recent full-throated defenses of sci-fi and fantasy such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s National Book Awards speech, he expressed incredulity that genre had not yet been accepted fully: “It just doesn’t even make sense to me that anyone’s still reflecting these biases.”

“I grew up in a household where the idea that the Civil Rights era was this accomplishment and that feminism had just straightened everything out -- I took it for granted that the world had just been reorganized along better lines and that it was manifest that everyone got it,” he went on, explaining that he has difficulty realizing that others haven’t accepted social progress.

“[Genre bias] is, obviously, not as consequential on someone’s ability to live in the world as racism or sexism, but it is actually, in its operation, just the same thing, it’s just ... somehow believing yourself to be privileged by virtue of where your identity is located -- privileged over some other person.”

... and the power of scifi itself to promote social justice:

“Science fiction happens to have an advanced capacity for interrogating the status quo! It’s really good at! It really almost just tricks you into doing it, even if you think you’re just reading it for fun! So yes, maybe it is a dangerous property that is fundamentally revolutionary, and it should be suppressed by the powers that be.”

He noted that this can change the way you look at every aspect of reality: “I’m on the side of the kinds of interrogations of reality that science fiction taught me to consider before I even had words for such things. It made me look at our present social situation as a construction, first and foremost.”

... AND to make us think about why marijuana is really (maybe) illegal:

“I’ve always thought it was interesting to consider the fact that alcohol was legal and marijuana was illegal. On one hand you could use the inexplicable theory: Look at what arbitrary lines we’ve drawn. This is just the same as this.

"Then again, you could also say, maybe it’s that alcohol is a mild social intoxicant that makes you feel isolated and belligerent, whereas marijuana is a mild social intoxicant that makes you feel kinship and perceive the hidden connections between things. So maybe one should be suppressed by a capitalist society because it’s deeply threatening.”

On the problem of Sea World:

“I think the existence of Sea World is as good a metaphor as any for the durability of things that we pretty much all have figured out are totally intolerable. There’s no way to make it work. But then again, the kids wanna go to Sea World. And also, you want the kids to see this creature that’s gonna blow their minds and expand their sense of the world they live in. It’s just irreconcilable.”

Why he wrote a story about the detention center at Gitmo:

“We’re all standing guard,” says Lethem, on how he came to write a story for his collection about the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. The poignant but almost whimsical story addresses the situation with more surreality than raw politicism, which he admits may result in some readers not getting the message.

He explains, “That was the only way I could shape the sense of both absurdity and despair that I felt inspired in me again by the irreconcilable fact that I got to go to my local coffee shop and hang out with a book or with the New York Times and that this other thing [detainment at Guantanamo Bay] was going on, and they’re connected, but I can’t articulate or clarify my sense of involvement in any meaningful way.

"So I just shoved them together, I tried to shove them into one place, you know. What if the orange jumpsuit guy was in a hole in the ground in front of the coffee shop, you know. It’s just a pure assault on the distance that’s inserted between these things in our ordinary experience.”

On how social progress changes how we view the classics:

“I teach stories that seem tolerable in their explicit and their implicit content to me, because of where I’m placed in history, but my students look at them as kind of these abysmal windows into happily overturned world views. And I’m stuck in between! If I can’t teach Hemingway or Kipling, then who am I anymore that they’re still alive in my brain? When I’m faced with the ways that they’ve become bankrupt, the ways in which they’re in grave default. It’s really strange. Time is moving at different rates.”

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