10/04/2013 09:52 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Dissident Gardens : An Interview with Jonathan Lethem


"Roth has always lurked for me, an emanation of intelligence and vitality and force-of-will that I took for granted until it became impossible for me to ignore." -- Jonathan Lethem, 2013

I first met Jonathan Lethem at a Tribute to Philip Roth honoring him on the event of his 80th birthday. As President of the Philip Roth Society, I invited Mr. Lethem to speak on our behalf and - as one of several speakers that evening, speakers including such luminaries as Claudia Roth Pierpont, Hermione Lee, Alain Finkelkraut, Edna O'Brien, and Philip Roth himself -- Jonathan Lethem moved me both to laughter and to tears. When he sat down beside me, after his remarks, I patted him on the back off-handedly: "Good job," I had said in a way that, in retrospect, would have been taken as an insult or unsuitably infantilizing to anyone other than the modest author beside me. And then, sounding like the host of "The Chris Farley Show" on Saturday Night Live, I added -- trying to improve on my first attempt at praise: "Do you remember that part when you talked about your kid? That was awesome!!"

As the next speaker was about to take the stage, I didn't have time to explain my research on contemporary representations of children, nor my newfound investment in his own work for that matter. Nor did I have time to apologize, in my own neurotic way, for reducing his carefully planned tribute to nothing less than "awesome," as if I were some kind of Valley Girl rather than the serious - and seriously nervous -- literary critic that I take myself to be.

Luckily, Mr. Lethem had given me the benefit of the doubt. On the occasion of the publication of his most recent novel, Dissident Gardens, he granted me a charming and candid interview not only about the book, but also about some themes that have remained a force throughout his career. Dissident Gardens appeared last month to a swirl of media frenzy and critical praise. I had known, of course, about the influence of Philip Roth on Lethem, but I had not considered until recently the influence of Ralph Ellison's 1952 masterpiece, Invisible Man.

In the middle of Lethem's expansive new novel is a chapter entitled, "Tommy Gogan's Second Album," the chapter in which a central couple meet. Here, Tommy meets Miriam who becomes for a time his love and his guide. ("I wed the Jewish unicorn!" Tommy says at one moment, a tribute to Nathan Zuckerman's fantasy of marrying Anne Frank in Roth's The Ghost Writer, but also a reminder that, several pages prior, Miriam had mistakenly conflated the unicorn with the leprechaun in Irish mythology). The chapter is central not simply because it falls literally in the middle of the book, and not only because it is where we see the beginnings of this pivotal relationship, but also because it underscores a primary theme in Lethem's work: the voices of the disenfranchised lost to history -- voices which are able to tell their own blues-inflected stories through the songs of Tommy Gogan -- and the sense of invisibility and loneliness experienced in the fame obsessed, profiteering culture of the contemporary U.S.

The message, coming as it does out of Tommy's interpretation of the power of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" -- a song which eclipses Tommy's own album -- is no less poignant as a result of Tommy's ambivalence. As Tommy reflects: "Whatever Dylan's qualifications for being its author, of lack thereof, the despicable song seemed to magnify loneliness: each time you heard it, it acted as a mirror bringing your face disastrously close, forced you to study gray-fleshed sockets, to encounter the red-threaded yolks of your eyes. It did this, even as it declared its listener, officially, invisible" (190). And here, too, lies the indisputable style of Lethem: the long rhythmic sentences that end on even syllables, the poetic repetition of the hard "c" sound, the sound of the lulling "l" -- as if the sounds of the sentence, too, want to replicate the character's ambivalence -- the requisite nod to finding oneself in the mirror, thrown off center by an honest description of what is found there: not oneself, simply, but disembodied, sleepless, drug-addled and bloodshot eyes.

Given their respective references to the push and pull of Communism in the U.S. in the 20th century, the reflections on race relationships and disenfranchisement, the problems imposed by intergenerational conflict, I can imagine myself, in the near future, teaching a course or writing an article on this key triptych emerging in American letters: Roth's I Married a Communist, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Lethem's own Dissident Gardens. Like the works of Roth and Ellison, Lethem's novel stands up to close scrutiny: It is full of humor and tenderness; it is lyrical, but that lyricism comes with a cost: the recognition of the betrayal of history in one's own search to achieve her dreams. To say that a novel stands up to close scrutiny, to repeated readings, is the highest praise I can give an author. Except for maybe, "That was awesome," which also, incidentally, describes the novel too.

Below are excerpts from my conversation with Mr. Lethem. In their range from an interest in race and class-consciousness in America, the influence of music, the importance of literary style, you will also see in his responses significant connections with the literary giants before him -- particularly, Roth and Ellison.

In a recent New York Times "By the Book," segment, you cite Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound as one of the best books you've read so far this year; and as your touching tribute to Roth on his 80th birthday aired on CSPAN makes clear, Philip Roth is an important influence on your work. In what ways do you see his themes or style enter into your own? Who/ what are other similar influences behind your work?

Roth has always lurked for me, an emanation of intelligence and vitality and force-of-will that I took for granted until it became impossible for me to ignore. He's become more and more a front-and-center preoccupation, among so many writers I revere and who influence me, but if you'd told me that would be the case when I was setting out to do this work, in my very early twenties, I would have been amazed or even dismissive. I wanted, or thought I wanted, cooler writers then, though my own temperature has turned out to be hot. And I couldn't see how Roth, in the fluency of his own voice and personality, attempted so many conceptually or formally exhilarating flights -- I needed writing that wore its formal concerns more on its sleeve. Now, in his ability to encompass methods, and the freedom his style allocates, I see him as a master of diversity -- he does everything fiction can do, practically, but he makes it all his own, and unifies it so deeply that his diversity is somewhat hidden. And what unifies it is the most attractive thing of all -- the atmosphere of necessity that pervades nearly everything he touches: This must be told.

Partly by the chance of his own disposition, and his response to fame, Roth anticipates the sensation of an impingement by the contemporary world on private experience in a way that makes him seem relevant to stuff I doubt he's even thinking about much directly. But the tone of aggrieved inquiry that he's so easy with makes him seem relevant to nearly anything; he's relevant to thinking.

He's also, needless to say, a great encouragement to the aging writer. I turn fifty this year, and the best evidence for hope that better things lie ahead than behind, is Roth. His career is practically the only argument for that hope.

He also makes me laugh -- but it took me a while to get the joke.

Given what you say about Roth's "atmosphere of necessity," it occurs to me that many authors and critics from our generation would contend that one cannot adequately write about America without also talking about race. Would you agree or disagree with this observation? In what ways do you see the tension (between wanting to talk about American race and politics, on the one hand, and writing more universal stories about love and death, on the other hand) play out Dissident Gardens?

Though I've obviously engaged with race directly several times -- it being a sort of natural legacy of my inner-city background -- I'd risk universalizing even a bit more and say you can't write adequately about America without writing about inequality and injustice, and how it sits there in the middle of this gigantic experiment in freedom, eating it up from the inside. As for love and death, you can't get very far writing about human beings -- you can't get an inch -- without being suffused in these universal themes. You don't have to reach for them, only abide with them. I've never seen being "universal" as a task, any more than I've ever really pursued any abstract theme. These things emerge from the work of storytelling, or they don't. But any writer will protest in this way.

Would you speak to the power you find as a writer in dramatizing the tension between mother and her child - in absence and presence, sometimes the most vexed form of love - as found in, among others, the 2003 short story, "View from a Headlock" (I am thinking here about Rachel and Dylan), and Dissident Gardens as seen in the passionate scenes between Rose and Miriam?

No doubt I've done a lot with absent or missing mothers, and with the way the absence becomes a kind of presence, or at least a pressure that continuously distorts what's been left behind. In Rose I suppose I made a leap to a present-mother, a too-present-mother, without even noticing I'd vaulted my own limit on such things. Of course I was thinking about my mother's mother. Or I should say I was thinking about her in an undisguised way, since I'd actually translated her into various other characters in my fiction, half-willingly, several times before. I'd also observed that in writing my ostensibly-autobiographical book, The Fortress of Solitude, I'd taken what had been a very populated home -- a commune full of other adults, and with my brother and sister, and my father's several girlfriends -- and reduced it all to a lonely single father and only son. When I noticed afterwards the oddness of this choice, and cast around for where I'd settled on this image, the answer was pretty obvious: a mother and daughter, not a father and son. For that was my mother's situation. Obviously her experience had lived somewhere in my body, imparted without my noticing.

Separate from all of the stories of personal dissidence within the canon, American history and, along with it, literary tradition seem also to be built on dissidence--on intergenerational conflict not only within families but also across political, cultural, and social lines. For example, the first great documents ever written in America contain a rhetorical middle finger to King George. As it is also a thematic interest in your own work I wonder if you find this to be a predominantly American trait, a trait inherent to certain generations, or a universal trait that spans the generations across the globe?

I guess with your very articulate multiple-choice question, or Pu Pu Platter, I'd have to opt for number three: dissidence, strife, alienation, dispossession, disgruntlement (and also, mercifully, their hopeful undertow of remorse, rapprochement, kinship, sublime acts of selflessness or empathy, and so forth) as the human condition, yep. I suppose this newest book is so immersed in specifics -- historical and personal grievances, geographies, the particular betrayals of particular affiliations -- that it might seem I think otherwise. But the site of Dissident Gardens is at last just my occasion for plunging into the eternal muck. Or so it feels to me. American identity may exemplify this stuff in some ways, but I'm too deep inside it myself to make a useful comparison to any other.

Speaking of American identity, Yiyun Li, writing recently for the New York Times, has argued that, on some level, Dissident Gardens offers a "pessimistic view of America, where the real conversation--about race, about class, about the country and its politics--remains to be held." While I tend to agree with this conclusion, I wonder if you see a balancing sense of optimism underlying the novel? (I am thinking, in part, about the exuberance of your literary style.)

Well, as I suggest above, I do find tremendous reserves of hope in miniature and/or temporary gestures of kinship and community, which contains -- I think the book is bursting with them, a counterpoint to the crushing burden of the wider historical dislocations and tragedies we and these characters are all living under.

Somehow, the form of the sentences within your book also reinforces this sense of conflict and dislocation. I have come to think that the ability to write a strong, formalist sentence must somehow be inborn, but also balanced with thousands of hours of experience reading good sentences. As the Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing, how do you teach your craft--this exuberance of style--at Pomona College?

Yes to those thousand of hours! I feel the secret to what's called "writing teaching" is that what I'm actually teaching is reading -- trying to find ways to beguile my students into reading more, into reading differently, and to read both with an intensified awareness of structure (in all its manifestations; writing can be, needs be, structured at so many different levels) but also with a deepened sympathy -- a willingness to at least temporarily enter into the alien context of another's imagination, to strip away all resistances. And these reading tasks are applied to everything -- to classic works, to contemporary stuff, to one another's manuscripts, and, most mysteriously, to one's own drafts. For what might seem the simplest thing is one of the most difficult, really: to read oneself with an eye to figuring out what's really happening on the page. To catch a glimpse in the mirror of what you look like when you're not looking in the mirror.

The picture of your study in the context of other authors' studies in the New York Times Magazine gives the voyeuristic reader a glimpse of your workspace, a space so neat and uncluttered. On the bottom shelves under the window appear to be vinyl albums and compact discs. I am wondering, in the context of your previous volumes, Fear of Music and The Ecstasy of Influence, about the relationship between the music you listen to and the novels that you write?

Don't be silly, I'm a good boy, I cleaned it up for the photographer! My school pictures always showed me with a buttoned collar, too.

Music remains in an enchanted position for me, because I'm as enraptured by it as I am by literature, but can't get any nearer to it than drooling fan. I've got no talent, or worse, a tin ear. Music therefore restores me to the pure position of the awed incompetent. So while I'm hammering away at my own attempts at literature, trying to narrow the distance between myself and that which awes me (please don't tell me how far I have to go -- I'm well aware), the music reminds me of the value of these things: my incompetency and my awe.

I've always been a bit suspicious of Burl Ives as an American folk singer, but you use his song about the gray goose as a refreshing intertext early on in your novel--the segment that was originally published in the May 6 2013 issue of the New Yorker. How did you come to write the gray goose as a figure for none other than Rose Zimmer?

I think I threw Ives in there intending to discredit him later in the book -- needless to say he was viewed dubiously by serious leftists for his dabbling with cooperation with the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities -- but forgot to do so! So the irony's there just for those who know, a subliminal throb of discomfort with the citation. Seems like it reached you.