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Birnbaum v.

Jonathan Lethem

A reactionary shudder is sweeping through the book world as the status quo realizes it’s terrified of literature. Our man in the mountains speaks with author Jonathan Lethem, who tears into the idea of “realist” vs. “anti-realist” fiction.

Since I last spoke with Jonathan Lethem, author of six novels, the most recent of which is The Fortress of Solitude, he has published a collection of stories, Men and Cartoons, and The Disappointment Artist, a book of what can loosely be called essays. He has also recently won a MacArthur Fellowship and has begun splitting his residence between Maine and Brooklyn. He is currently working on another novel and considering adding a dog to his family.

On any given weekend in the summer, the literary population of metro New York is significantly diminished and, consequently, Maine’s is swollen by an inexorable seasonal exodus. As I live in Exeter, N.H., just off Interstate 95, which is a major artery twixt God’s own cement and what many claim is paradise, I have occasionally benefited from the summer shifts. This past summer I managed to catch up with Lethem, whom I missed when he was touting his recent essay book. Comfortably ensconced on the shores of the Squamscott River, in the company of my moody and protective Labrador, Rosie, and away from the diabolic pressures of the book tour, we chatted about literary this and literary that.

This conversation represents the third in what may be correctly regarded as an open-ended dialogue. Unfortunately, we never got around to talking about one of Lethem’s great passions, the New York Mets, though off camera we both expressed a high regard for hurler Pedro Martinez and dismay at the way Red Sox fans have viewed him since his departure for New York City. I expect we will pick up this thread in the future—most assuredly when Manny Ramirez joins Pedro in the National League.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: [greyhound and master are approaching in the distance] Rosie hates that dog. And her owner is totally oblivious.

Jonathan Lethem: So you both have a problem, with that couple?

RB: I just think he’s goofy—Rosie really dislikes that dog. I’m going to hold on to you, Rosie. So, we talked last—almost two years ago?

JL: I think it was more than that. Maybe not. I guess it was in the thick of the hardcover tour for The Fortress of Solitude. So that dates it to October 2003.

RB: We were going to reconvene for your essay collection, and things didn’t work out. And we connected after that, and you gave me the impression that you had things on your mind—

JL: [chuckles]

RB:—maybe not of great urgency, that were pressing on you.
Lethem, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
JL: I vaguely recall. There had been a wave of reactionary vibrations in the reviewing environment that disturbed me. I know you were upset by some reactions to some books. I’m remembering from the emails, it might have been along those lines. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t race into conversation with a head full of—

RB: [laughs]—vituperation.

JL: Yeah. I’m sure some of it will reemerge.

RB: Since the novel, you have published some stories and published an essay collection, which is something of a hybrid. Certainly they are essays—but not exactly.

JL: Call them sleight-of-hand pieces. I began by pointing outward at some cultural object and then kind of looped around into confession. And, through the book, increasingly so. Once I established the pattern, I realized what I was up to, and began letting the pieces become increasingly confessional pieces. By the end of the sequence—which is how I think of it, a sequence of essays—it seemed to me I had written a backdoor memoir. Not a comprehensive one, more a series of glances, a series of entrees into memoir.

RB: These were written for the purpose of being in one collection?

JL: The pattern emerged and then became more and more deliberate. I’d never written essays. I never thought that I’d want to. I had an exaggerated sense of the novelist’s role as a tale-teller, an imagineer. I’d written four novels and any number of short stories before I even attempted any rudimentary essay forms—like a book review or a record review. I’d done practically nothing in a nonfiction voice. Never used a first-person “I” that was sincerely—or ostensibly—direct. I backed into it. After I’d finished Girl in Landscape, I found myself not completely satisfied. I was proud of the book, I thought it expressed everything I could in fiction about my feeling for John Wayne and the John Ford films, and yet there was something left unexpressed. That was, to actually say: “I love these movies, and it’s confusing to love these movies.” So I began writing the essay that opens the book, Defending The Searchers. Really, just a self-portrait of myself entering four different moviegoing experiences. A description of what it had been like to watch The Searchers and end up upset four different times. By the time I finished it—well, I liked the piece very much. Yet it was anomalous. I hadn’t written it for anyone. It wasn’t commissioned. No editors expected essays from me. Because I had never—[Rosie growls] I guess she spotted the dog. [She growls again.]

RB: Hey, hey. Stop it. OK, OK. [Dog and owner pass by.] See what I mean? There is something odd.

JL: On all counts. [laughs]

RB: Good girl, Rosie. So, this was at a point everything you wrote was for publication?

JL: Everything I wrote was fiction.

RB: I was focusing on your having said that you wrote it and there had been no commission?

JL: Yeah. I just sort of stared at the piece. I offered it to a couple of places, but because it was this hybrid, and I hadn’t established any precedent for it, not one bit. Certainly from a journalistic view, there was no peg. No one thought that John Wayne was hot news that year.

RB: The Searchers is a perennial in top 10 movie lists.

JL: Sure, to the people who care, it’s always news. That’s how I felt. Yet as it happened, the piece was a kind of a floater. It was on my desk for a couple of years before I published it. I stared at it, and it was a provocation to me. I thought, “Well, maybe I could do that with something other than The Searchers. What if I did the same thing, confess my obsession, but with another cultural object?” Because really that’s what these essays are about—being a fan, being an obsessive. And so I took the next occasion. Someone asked me to write about Star Wars for a book of essays, and I thought, “Well, let’s see if I can repeat the trick.” So I wrote another confessional piece, built around the moviegoing experience. Why did I care about that movie when I cared about that movie? Why did I go to see it so many times? Again, I liked the result. So I repeated the trick a third time on the subject of Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics. And by the time I had three of these things, I felt it was an inviting mode for me as a writer. So suddenly I was an essayist, in this funny hybrid-confessional form. And I thought, “OK, I’ll find four, five, six more chances and I’ll have a book.” At that same moment, I began to imagine a piece to conclude the book—“The Beards” was its eventual title—one which wouldn’t dwell on any single cultural object but on the nature of my obsessions generally, as they play out over a whole range of material.

RB: Is there writing you didn’t include or you discarded?

The word that the theater trade uses is the right one—notices. People were last Sunday put on notice that my new book was to be found, if they hadn’t spotted it already. That’s all that matters.JL: No. There were subjects that I at one point imagined would have to be included. I thought, “Of course there has to be a Bob Dylan chapter.” But my relationship to Dylan’s work became too big—it wasn’t proportionate to the book. So someday I’ll write a whole book about Dylan. Or else I’ll leave it to the few glancing pieces I’ve already done, here and there.

RB: Have you read Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads?

JL: I think it’s terrific.

RB: You must have read Dylan’s Chronicles.

JL: Yeah.

RB: I found it to be an odd awkward read, though I enjoyed it. I liked the audio version read by Sean Penn, which gave me a better feeling for it.

JL: You felt more invited?

RB: Yeah, I didn’t access it well on the page.

JL: I liked the prose a lot. It seems to me that the key to that book is not to demand of it that Dylan’s being precise about the past, but instead see it as an enormously generous snapshot of Bob Dylan at this instant. This is how he feels, today. In that way it’s akin to a song like “Highlands” at the end of Time Out of Mind. It’s like Dylan opening his journal to you. And saying, “Here’s a day in the life.” So, Chronicles is how he feels about all these different moments in his life now. It seems to me very warm, very generous.

RB: What do you make of the review that Brent Staples published in the New York Times last week on The Disappointment Artist?

JL: I was in Europe and couldn’t get a hold of it when it was published, so I happened to receive people’s reaction to it, over email, long before I read it myself. Which was an interesting thought experiment because—

RB: My first question was, “Why publish that now?” Not that there should be a time limit and in fact I liked that—

JL: Oh, I didn’t care about the schedule. The Times Book Review has freed itself to be late more recently, a good thing. I myself actually turned in a very late piece—I reviewed the Kafka study K by [Roberto] Calasso three or four months after it was published. It’s not a bad thing. It breaks the spell of everyone necessarily hanging on that review, at the instant of publication, to set the tone for everything else. It might free us and also free up the Times from any sense that it’s somehow in charge.

RB: Maybe it’s a break with the industry’s conventional wisdom that a book has a six-week window—so this was not tied to the publication date.

JL: Well, technically, I’m sure it makes publishers miserable. But the Staples piece was a funny one in that I got nothing but—the piece was totally positive in every surface sense, and yet I got nothing but commiseration on email. People saying, “Too bad about the piece.”

RB: It’s as much if not more about him than about you.

JL: I suppose. I don’t hang on any single review the way I might once have. I never have pretended not to read them. You do lose interest in them. [Rose growls at another passerby]

RB: See how fierce she is?

JL: Yeah. We’re safe here, I think. There are a just few basic stances that most reviews fall into, though the exceptions are fascinating. You’re so struck when a review is compelling to you. But reviews that I might read with fascination if they were of someone else’s book, trying to parse them—when they’re of my own book, about which I’ve already thought so hard, in a process which ended a year or more earlier, I’m rarely engaged. I put them in the drawer.

RB: American newspaper book reviewing seems to be insubstantial, and for me the only reason to read them is for a particular writer, not for news or judgment about a book. The magazines are just a hair better.

JL: They’re “notices.” The word that the theater trade uses is the right one—notices. People were last Sunday put on notice that my new book was to be found, if they hadn’t spotted it already. That’s all that matters.

RB: Why are newspapers so stingy with how many books they notice? Do these things actually sell books?

JL: Sure.

RB: I mean the good versus the bad.

JL: I don’t know. I can’t tell you. But they go together, in my experience—piles of them clippings accumulating goes together with people telling you your book is selling [laughs].

RB: Some critical mass has to be achieved.

JL: To be serious about it, my guess is that, for a reader or browser, you get curious about books you’ve heard or seen mentioned a third or a fourth time. You suddenly think, “I better find out,” “OK, this is out there.” Something you hear mentioned once you can forget about; four times you begin to wonder if you’re on the outside looking in. Whether you’ve lost a step. So, notices are good.

RB: The short-story collection, the essays, so here you are and here it is summertime—are you sitting by idly doing nothing?

JL: No, I’m writing a novel.

RB: A novel!

JL: I figured out what to do—after Fortress. It took a while.

RB: Were the stories diversions while you figured it out?

JL: Both the story collection and the essay collection gather approximately seven or eight years worth of work. So, both books were written before, during, and after the composition of Fortress—if that’s not too confusing. The essays began immediately upon completing Girl in Landscape, so that’s dated very specifically. I began in ‘97. The stories reach back a little further. The oldest may go back as far as ‘95. But the preponderance of the work in both collections was done during the years of writing or the year of [chuckles] promoting Fortress of Solitude. And both are closely related to the big novel. Both could be seen as elaborate afterbirths.

RB: Appendices?

JL: I don’t mind looking at them that way. The thematic freight of Fortress of Solitude, all that Brooklyn 1970s, fathers and sons, pop-cultural ephemera, the nature of fannishness or cultural obsession, is reflected in both the story collection and the essay collection. They’re under the same umbrella. And in terms of my own workshop, they represent an attempt to push the last of that material out the door. What comes next is quite different.

RB: At the moment do you look at—where is the seam or break in your career trajectory?

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).

RB: Can you recall the content of your first novels?

JL: I think I can. I might be surprised if I flip them open. You fool yourself into thinking that you really know exactly what’s inside. And if you do a reading tour, there are a couple of sections that you end up memorizing and those stand in, in your memory, for the whole. Occasionally someone quotes a paragraph from As She Climbed Across the Table or Girl in Landscape and I don’t recognize it immediately. But what I guess I’d call the gestalt of each of the books resides very clearly with me.

RB: Are you propelled by or moved by some desire to be original, to never repeat or recapitulate or cover old ground? Do you even think in those terms?

I had to absorb the example of writers less like Kafka, and rather more like Philip Roth, who employ the power of giving the world its real name. It was an epiphany for me when I realized the power of giving things their actual names.JL: The way you framed the question, I’d say no. First of all, I think my so-called originality—which is just as often called my ‘surrealism’ or my ‘postmodernism’ or what-have-you—tends to be overstated, at the expense of how deeply traditional my work is.

RB: [laughs]

JL: Any innovation is a sort of howling red flag. Though I doubt red flags howl—a three-word mixed metaphor. It’s in the nature of the innovations to demand disproportionate attention and description, when often they comprise 10 or 15 percent of what I’ve tried to do. In fact, I think I’ve demonstrated an unwavering, and quite extensive commitment to character, narrative, and emotion, beginnings, middles, ends, the sturdiest of traditional methods—I’m hardly on some avant-garde frontier. There’s simply one thing I do, and it’s not out of—as you proposed in your question—any restless urge to be original or provocative. Instead, it’s a helpless instinct, one I’ve been expressing from the very beginning in my work, and I suppose I’ll never quit: That is, to push together realistic character and emotion, and naturalistic or mimetic textures, with the stuff of dream, fantasy, symbol—and to make the fit between these different areas very prominent. Aggressively prominent. This conflation of the realist and the anti-realist, which—if you believe me as a critic of my own work, which you have no obligation to do—isn’t something I, as a writer, can propose to either do or not do. It’s a helpless act. It’s how writing feels to me, and I’ve produced versions again and again, in different combinations and different proportions each time. When you look at Motherless Brooklyn, the language, the Tourette’s, is the fantastic element. In that book the linguistic distortion, the metaphor, runs amok as if a dream of language has broken out in a typical hardboiled detective novel. Obviously, in Fortress of Solitude, the superhero is the metaphor that breaks out of the metaphorical and runs amok, distorting the reality. The better I succeed at making this rupture prominent, making it apparent what I want to do, the more satisfying it is for me, and the more provocative or even irritating it can be for readers who don’t like it, who can’t accept it. But I’m not trying to do anything that seems to me to be radical. I’m trying to do something that seems necessary—to express the way experience itself—memory, desire, perception—is, like language, like fiction, comprised of what we’ll agree to call, quite clumsily, a realist and an anti-realist tendency. Life itself is made up of things that we experience as prosaic and things we experience as dreamlike, or disruptive, or metaphoric, or hallucinogenic. And so I’ve always wished to push some version of those distortions I sense pushing at the surface of everyday life into prominence in the work. Whether it’s a fantastic element, one that created a resonance with science fiction, or fantasy, or magic realism, or a linguistic or metaphorical distortion, or a neurological distortion, or whether the distortion is archetypal, symbolic—say, the superhero plopping into the everyday realm—for me it’s the same chase. I’m on the same trail.

RB: Maybe another way of asking that big, sloppy, puppy dog question that I tried is: As you create a larger body of work, how self-conscious are you about—

JL: About not repeating myself?

RB: No, but thinking about, “Have I learned something?” Maybe it’s not as concise a thought as “Am I a better writer?” or something like that. Perhaps, “Can I do this?”

JL: In retrospect, I do look at things in those terms: tools acquired, capacities acquired and made use of. I’m very pleased with myself when I see I seem to have been studying a method both in my reading and writing, and then I suddenly put it in play. One reason I didn’t do very much with the evocation of place for so long was that I hadn’t read a lot that I loved that was as deeply engaged with setting. Because it always begins with reading, of course. When I started out, I read so much on the Borges, Calvino, Kafka side of things. I hadn’t, for instance, read 10 books by Phillip Roth where he brings Newark to life. I couldn’t have done Brooklyn the way I did in Fortress, because the synapses didn’t fire along those pathways yet. I hadn’t acquired those instincts as a reader.

RB: You had to read Roth as opposed to—I don’t get the sense that you’ve had that kind of personal experience or reflected on that kind of personal experience. That you really thought about where you lived and traveled. You had to read it to get it?

Listen: every novel is a piece of wrought plastic. Readers may not wish to dwell on this fact, and I feel no necessity that they do, but writers, in order be intelligent about the innate properties of their medium, must come to grips with it.JL: No, I don’t mean that I—I’d been waiting for ways to talk about that street, Dean Street in Brooklyn, forever. I’d been making attempts. I’d been metaphorizing it, expressing those feelings in ways which seemed direct only to me. No one would have thought I was writing about Brooklyn or race, yet I was often writing about a dystopian urban environment. I was often writing about versions of otherness and identity. In fact, I almost did nothing else. But to speak of it by naming it [chuckles] as I did in Fortress of Solitude, I had to absorb the example of writers less like Kafka, and rather more like Philip Roth—to stick with the same vivid example, although there are dozens of others—who employ the power of giving the world its real name. It was an epiphany for me when I realized the power of giving things their actual names. I thought there was a kind of fictional law that you had to make up everything. If a character in my early books listened to a song or went to a movie, I’d make up the song or the movie. I thought nothing should be nonfictional in a fictional space. It’s a false morality I was imposing. But I believed in it. I felt it passionately: That I should invent everything inside the space of my novels.

RB: The naming of some specific real world thing gives it an additional potency?

JL: The writer transports himself into a different linguistic space, and the reader is carried along. When, for instance, when Dickens gives London streets their real names and when Roth gives Newark streets their real names, there’s a conjuration of memory and time and space that the reader experiences, whether they know these are the real names or not.

RB: Or even whether there is an accurate description—

JL: Of course. And if it’s fiction, it’s almost always less transparently autobiographical than it’s taken to be. This is something I learned from Roth as well: You can derive tremendous energy for yourself as a writer and for readers in their experience of a book, not only by gathering material from your real life, [but also] from raising the question of whether or not something is autobiographical. In Roth this tension often stands in place of traditional plot mechanics for generating readerly fervor. You’re always having to think, “This might be real. But it might not be. He could be fooling me.” In Fortress, I switched not only to honest autobiographical methods but as well to manipulative autobiographical chimeras, where I seem to be saying, “This is me.” And then I pull away. I become deceitful, and the reader responds to that as well, with irritation perhaps, but curiosity. They’re being teased with the possibility of confession.

RB: Is that what you want from your reader? If I’m watching a movie, do I want to be conscious that I am watching the movie?

JL: Once I’d allowed myself to be unflinchingly autobiographical in the emotions, I also came to an understanding between myself and my editor, and myself and eventual readers, that I wouldn’t choose to be coy about this, and claim the book was somehow unrelated to personal experience. I grew up in that place. I was deriving a lot of energy from writing about schools I attended. Putting my characters, putting their feet—[Rosie growls and barks again. JL laughs.]

RB: OK, thank you. [laughs]

JL:—planting my characters’ feet on the sidewalks that I walked growing up. Unless I was going to vanish and never speak of this work, and temperamentally, I’ve never been inclined to vanish. I knew my publisher would be bewildered if I proposed to vanish—never tour, give no interviews, do a Pynchon. That wasn’t likely, and so I was certain to be read from the very beginning in the context of an array of information. People were going to know that this was a semi-autobiographical novel. To pretend otherwise, to think they weren’t going to encounter this book in company of reviews, profiles of me, even dust jacket copy that implicitly speculated on the novel’s relationship to my life, would be ludicrous. So, I proposed to capitalize, just as Roth capitalizes on this energy that is created by the reader’s curiosity, even if it’s subliminal or awkward or embarrassing. Readers may not wish to feel that they’re reading a novel but also learning about an author’s life, but they’ll nevertheless be captivated. Of course there are readers who never want to think about that. This wasn’t going to be a book for them.

RB: There is that recurring issue of all that’s relevant is what’s on the page.

JL: It wasn’t that I was thinking that I could control those externals. All I care about is what’s on the page. I care about the book and I also feel a compulsion—it’s not a responsibility toward anyone except toward myself—a compulsion to ensure that any given text is an absolute self-enclosing, self-describing system, that needs absolutely no apparatus or information brought to it for it to function. It should be a machine like a perfect space probe, one capable of being self-sustaining in a vacuum, forever. But, having committed to making the text function that way—and I always do—it would be a kind of bogus naiveté to pretend that innumerable readers would not be encountering this work alongside at least some hint, some whisper that I grew up in Brooklyn, that I went to public schools, etcetera.

RB: A porous, permeable self-contained entity.

JL: Well, no, not porous. Rather, think of this space probe as an object available to projection. It’s not porous. It’s absolute. But, like a gleaming surface, you can have all sorts of things broadcast onto it, projected onto it. And it was a certainty that any book promoted as heavily was going to enjoy, or suffer, projections. If I were to extend this insane metaphor even further, I’d claim that cleverly inscribed on its outermost surface were runes designed to engage brilliantly with the projections—

RB: Um—yeah.

JL: I think we pushed that one to the very brink.

RB: [laughs] You still live in Brooklyn—an area that has a very high writer population per capita.

JL: It’s almost grotesque.

RB: You said something about living—there’s the writing, which is a big part of your life. When you live in Brooklyn, what’s your life experience outside of writing? What do you do?

JL: I don’t know how to answer that.

RB: Is your living always tied to being a writer? How conscious or self-conscious are you about what you do? Do you skydive?

JL: I don’t skydive but I, of course, do any number of things that would stand in the place of that. So, let’s say skydiving. I’m reluctant—it seems like the high school yearbook to list my relevant hobbies, my non-writing hobbies. Here’s the thing—I’ve just published a sort of confession about my obsessive cultural appetite, the book of essays. And in a funny way, I think I’ve gotten dodgy about certain personal question because that’s the new book. It says exactly as much as I want or need to say. I go to movies all the time. Big surprise!

RB: That’s seems to be an expected writerly thing to do.

JL: You’re tough. Okay, let me try to surprise you, minimally. Few people expect that I am as fervent a baseball fan as I am. That every morning I read the sports section before any other section in the paper. At night in hotel rooms on book tour, I have to go to the sports channel to find out how the Mets did. Well, now I sound idiotic. But, hey, man, I’ve got a life. And of course, Brooklyn has to do with every part of my life. It’s where I live. Not a symbol, but a place. I grew up right there and that’s just happened to become—[Rosie interrupts again, barking]

RB: You’re a pain the ass. Hey! Quiet.

JL:—a part of what I write about. It’s not actually my fault if Brooklyn functions as a cultural token. I’m a regional writer, testifying about a place I’m helpless not to think of, to dream of.

RB: If you are Borges or that type of writer, you are expected to not have a life outside books and letters and to sit in a room and fill up pages.

JL: So why are you expecting otherwise of me? [both laugh]

RB: I’m not expecting it, or anything.

JL: C’mon, why can’t I be like Borges?

RB: When you talk about a life that is including things that are [more] specific, that are real, then one becomes curious about what those things are that you are seeing and experiencing and most of all utilizing to make stories and tell stories. Not that I really want specifics—just to know that you are doing something other than sitting in a room all day and writing, or trying to.




Lethem, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005


JL: Sure, of course. But I’ll wrestle with your question a little more. Because the fact that Fortress of Solitude encompasses prosaic reality in a way—it opens up this aperture and swallows up all sorts of… to the point that many people who liked my briefer books think it’s kind of tiresome.

RB: [laughs]

JL: That it describes far too much everyday detail.

RB: So much for short attention spans. Ian McEwan wondered how short attention spans allowed for the consumption of big books like The Da Vinci Code—he speculated that attention spans might not be a matter of biology but of culture.

JL: That’s good. The fact that it [Fortress of Solitude] happens to encompass everyday life doesn’t mean that I only just recently began to live everyday life. You can’t dodge experience. I was as fervent a Mets fan when I was writing Girl in Landscape, a book set in completely propositional space, where the Mets never could have been mentioned. I was just as devoted to my team as I was while writing Fortress of Solitude, where I’d created a different sort of propositional space, one made up of all these deceptively prosaic details, and where the Mets were welcome. But here’s the crucial point: both Fortress and Girl In Landscape are artificial realities. Fiction is a gigantic construction, a bauble. A novel is not life. That’s why it’s so pointless that this relentless baiting goes on, where ‘realist’ fiction is pitted against ‘anti-realist’ fiction as though one of the two has made some kind of commitment of integrity to be real, a responsibility the other has abdicated. Listen: every novel is a piece of wrought plastic. Readers may not wish to dwell on this fact, and I feel no necessity that they do, but writers, in order be intelligent about the innate properties of their medium, must come to grips with it. Fiction, like language, is innately artificial and innately fabulous. It’s made of metaphor. Language itself is a fantastic element. It’s not possible to plant words in the ground and have seeds grow up and feed on the results. It’s not part of the biological or mechanical world.

RB: Our training inclines us to look at realism as the truth because we can readily identify these things—

JL: As opposed, say, to the feeling of emotional identification that occurs when you read Kafka’s The Castle?

RB: There is some laziness possible when one reads certain texts.

JL: Look, let me be brutal. When you encounter the argument that there is a hierarchy where certain kinds of literary operations—which we’ll call ‘realism,’ for want of a handier term, though I’ll insist on the scare quotes—represent the only authentic and esteemed tradition, well, it’s a load of horseshit. When you see or hear that kind of hierarchy being proposed, it’s not a literary-critical operation. It’s a class operation. In that system of allusions, of unspoken castes and quarantines, mimetic fiction is associated with propriety, with the status quo defending itself, anxiously, against incursions from the great and wooly Beyond. When ‘realism’ is esteemed over other kinds of literary methods, you’re no longer in a literary-critical conversation; you’ve entered a displaced conversation about class. About the need for the Brahmin to keep an Untouchable well-marked and in close proximity, in order to confirm his role as Brahmin. Once something has been relegated or outcast or quarantined from propriety, you’re seeing a kind of burnishing of class credentials, a hastening to the redoubt, a drawing-up of the drawbridge of the castle, because the moat is too full of terrifying fish and fowl. A critic who expends much energy on delineating quarantines—“This sort of material is legitimate” is testifying as to their own anxieties as to whether or not they themselves are on the legitimate side of some imagined moat or gulf. “We’re going to draw a line here, and feel very relieved and superior about the people on one side of the line and very disappointed and sorry for the people on the other side.” It’s not a literary critical distinction of any usefulness whatsoever.

RB: I notice some writers will insert “fictional” facts—

JL: Hmm.

RB: They’ll create places and flowers and all sorts of things and that’s taken notice of as if the rest of it is of a different metaphysical status.

JL: Now we’re arriving at the bug [that was] in my ear when I said we should talk again. It’s all coming back. 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.

RB: To what do you ascribe their motives?

JL: OK, let me go hang myself here. I’ll speculate on their motives, too. Remember we’re talking about a collective gestalt abreaction. If I’m right—let’s just for the sake of argument, let’s say there is a kind of reactionary shudder making its way through the literary community, from newspaper reviewing to magazine reviewing to perhaps even some of the blogosphere—there’s what feminism would call a backlash phenomenon going on. What would the motive be, for such a thing? Well, if you permit analogies to things like identity politics, you’d say some bulwark or status quo is feeling itself threatened. Which in turn means that the very success of writers like Pynchon and Delillo and Angela Carter, and the pervasiveness of their influence is what’s threatening this status quo. For, much like feminism, if the argument had no influence, if these methods all represented failed experiments, if they led nowhere, led only to unreadable novels, then there would be no reason to draw up the gates. In fact, that’s what’s being proposed by the false naiveté: that these activities were circumscribed, that they consisted only of a brief period of avant-garde provocation, one with no influence, that had no resonance or relevance. If those writers didn’t have hundreds upon hundreds of delighted successors who have made free and ready use of their methods, the status quo wouldn’t be unsettled. Unsettled by what they attack under the name post-modernism and what—if you accept my argument—is in fact modernism itself! It is the success, not the failure, of the revolution, which has caused the nostalgic hand-wringing for the ‘good old days’—as always, the non-existent good old days—when literature was the safe preserve of the ‘realists.’ What are we hankering for? Examine the logic and see where this impulse ends up. Let’s see, if we chide the writer who makes reference to low-brow material, who appropriates cultural material—because appropriations are a bit like sampling in rap, really borderline plagiarism, everyone knows this—we’ll have to roll back to T.S. Eliot. Oops, we have to throw Eliot on the scrap heap, too—apparently he risked some high-low mixing, and some appropriations. Forget Joyce, of course. We’d better go even further back. Once you begin looking at the underlying premise—a blanket attack on the methods that modernism uncovered—the kind of bogus nostalgia for a pure, as opposed to an impure, literature, what you really discover is a discomfort with literature itself. A discomfort with writing. A discomfort with the kinds of exuberance, with—

RB: With imagination—

JL:—with relevance. What’s really being called for is a deeply irrelevant—literature as a high-brow quilting bee—

RB: [laughs]

JL:—for people who are terrified, in fact, by its potential vitality, influence, and viability. American writing, its roots in Poe, Twain, Melville, and extended through Faulkner and, for gawd’s sake, everyone else—is encompassing, courageous, omnivorous. It gobbles contradiction, keeps its eyes open, engages with the culture at every possible level. But boundaries being crossed make the inhabitants of the increasingly isolated castle of the status quo all the more anxious. If we’re free to use these methods, allowed to talk about everything we know, if we are allowed to describe the world of advertising, the world of capitalism, the world of pop culture, the actual world where the elements described as of high- and low-brow are in a constant inextricable mingling—if we let down our guard, where will our status emblems be? What credentials will we burnish? How will we know we are different from the rabble outside the gates? Again, it’s sheerly class anxiety that is expressed in these attacks. And, as well, a fundamental discomfort with the creative act, with the innately polymorphous, the innately acquisitive, curious, exuberant and engaged tendencies in the creative act itself.

RB: Does that suggest a steady downward spiral of the critical conversation?

JL: Well, I don’t know. We’re in a bad patch, that’s all. A reactionary shudder is moving through the collective mind.

RB: It’s worse than reactionary.

JL: It’s not about reading. That’s the problem. It really is about—I’m repeating myself—class anxiety. Once you have an eye for this you spot it in odd places. I read a review in Book Forum where a critic, quite incidentally, in attacking Michel Houellebecq, said in an aside, “But then again, the French regard Hitchcock as art.” Well, now, wait a minute! These battles were fought and won. These victories were decisive ones, fifty years ago. There’s no rolling that back. Hitchcock is art. So if you pin Hitchcock’s scalp to your belt: “Not only have I seen through Michel Houellebecq, the charlatan, but in fact I’m going to tell you that the auturists were wrong and Hitchcock is low-brow and unsavory,” you’ve discredited yourself so absolutely that you deserve to read nothing but Trollope for the rest of your life.

RB: [laughs] What you read about Houellebecq now is that he reportedly fell asleep in a TV interview.

JL: [laughs]

RB: All this ambient trivia.

JL: What’s left, then, in the residue of a reactionary environment, is cult hysteria. Houellebecq is typical of the provocative, absurd figures that flourish in conservative times. In place of intelligent conversation everything is pushed to extremes. On one side we have the castle with its drawbridge raised—the vast environment of what’s actually going on in the world of writing and reading stranded outside the preserve—and on the other end we feature ludicrous figures of cartoon provocation. I personally don’t find Houellebecq that thrilling, just as I don’t find Lars von Trier the most nourishing filmmaker. A von Trier or Houellebecq dedicates far, far too much of their energies, their creative energies, to sheer provocation. You see a kind of mirror image of the reactionary impulse, a moral scold from the other end of the spectrum. The only message a Houellebecq or von Trier can convey is “Western society, and all that your propriety comprises, is totally bankrupt.” Well, fair enough. The problem is, I’m not terribly nourished in being scolded for being a citizen of contemporary Western culture. I can’t help it. I’d like to know a bit more than the fact that I am to be ashamed. You get only a very brief charge out of going into a von Trier movie and being told how bankrupt everything is.

RB: The danger of becoming what you are fighting.

JL: Man, I’m really full of lectures today.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum