I life in writing
Jonathan Lethem: ‘I’ve always thought of myself as a dark writer, but this is utterly different’
The American novelist on writing horror, how Occupy gave capitalism back its name and the thunderbolt that has hit US politics
Friday 10 February 2017 12.00 GMT
he Blot, Jonathan Lethem’s noirish new novel, centres on Alexander Bruno, a suave tuxedo-wearing gambler: “he’d been told he resembled Roger Moore, or the bass player from Duran Duran”. He travels the world, playing high-stakes games, taking rich men’s money in clubs and private dining rooms; such is his reputation and air of “ruined glamour” it is almost a privilege to lose against him. The reader first encounters this “weird sad gorgeous man” travelling to a mansion outside Berlin; halfway through the game that follows, a half-naked woman appears in a zippered leather mask offering tiny sandwiches.
His German opponent calls Bruno a “man of mystery”. During another game, cocaine-fuelled and played in Raffles hotel in Singapore, a woman drapes her arms over his shoulders and stage-whispers: “She told me you looked like James Bond, but I didn’t believe it.” Bruno seems content merely to perform being himself, not to have an interior. Yet Lethem’s hero is, even at the burlesque beginning of this entertaining novel, unlike 007 in at least two obvious ways: first, rather than poker, he plays backgammon; and second, he has begun to suffer a problem with his vision, a blind spot – he calls it “the blot” – and it spells his downfall. On a backgammon board, a “blot” is a piece that stands alone, vulnerable to attack.
Lethem, who is best known for the novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, initially thought of making his protagonist a poker player, but decided it was too much of a cliche. Besides, as Bruno says, “backgammon’s beauty was its candidness. In contrast to poker, there were no hidden cards.” As in poker, the betting involves bullying, but as in chess, what’s on the board is undeniable. All of which played into what Lethem says is his “fascination with the problem of superficiality. All I have of you is your mask, the enactment of you … All I can offer you is the one that I’m wearing.” After Bruno undergoes a major operation that involves rebuilding his handsome, expressionless face, he takes to wearing a medical mask (that is, merely a different kind of mask) at all times.
Lethem is a renowned stylist who turns out funny, exuberant, surprising sentences, and who has a deep love of genre fiction. He reread the novels of Graham Greene when planning the novel – “as I kid I revered him” – and Bruno’s escapades in Singapore have a nicely colonial Greene-ish feel. “He writes about men spiralling into disgrace; it connects to this book,” Lethem says. When we talk in his office at Pomona College, southern California, I ask him if The Blot, which is shorter and less ambitious than some other of his novels, is akin to a Greene “entertainment”.
The answer is complicated. He began the book while on a sabbatical in Berlin – he teaches creative writing – when he was in a very “cleared-out space”, having just finished two big projects. The first was Dissident Gardens, his superb fictional engagement with three generations of leftwing activists in New York: it begins with the American communist party in the 1950s, takes in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk revival and the 1970s Sandinista revolutionary movement, and ends with Occupy. Lethem based it on the experiences of his grandmother and his own upbringing among countercultural radicals in a Brooklyn commune – his mother was a 1960s folk singer who died when he was 13.
“Dissident Gardens had invoked a lot of ghosts,” he says. “This made it most similar, as a writing experience, to The Fortress of Solitude” – a novel that draws on his childhood in a poor neighbourhood of Brooklyn, where he was one of few white kids attending the local school. “I felt I was doing some witnessing.”
The second “giant weight off my back” was his collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, a book that tackles, among other subjects, his college years alongside Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis at Bennington College, Vermont (“Bret stood perfectly for what outraged me at that school, and terrified me, too, the blithe conversion of privilege into artistic fame. It was inconvenient that I liked him.”). It catalogues his passions and influences, from Marvel superheroes to Bob Dylan to Barbara Pym; the bravura title essay, a defence of artistic appropriation, is composed entirely of sentences lifted from other sources. For Lethem that book too was “about legacy and burdens and accounting for myself”.
After all this, The Blot was “a conscious attempt to get back to a more straightforward storytelling”; it is mostly “disburdened of social ethical frameworks”. Even so, he didn’t set out to lighten the mood with an “entertainment”: “it’s simply the book I wanted to write next”. Now that he has so many novels under his belt, and is part of the hip literary establishment – the Colson Whitehead, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan generation – it would be “easy to fall in with entrancing myths of my trajectory”. But “there’s no plot”, and he’s always wanted to write different kinds of books: “I’ve been around long enough for people to endure my zigzags, my careening.”
The blot itself is not only a backgammon piece, and what turns out to be a tumour behind Bruno’s face, but stands for “what you can’t see and can’t know. The thing at the centre of your vision – yourself. The mystery of consciousness.” In other words, the blot exists in the “realm of the symbolical or metaphorical”. It’s thus comparable to Lack, the hole in the universe, in his early “boy-meets-girl-meets-void” campus novel As She Climbed Across the Table; and to the magic ring Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude discover in The Fortress of Solitude; also to the “chaldron” in his later semi-surrealist novel Chronic City. The symbol “exfoliates”, Lethem says, “it keeps meaning different things – and for me, that’s the gold, that’s what I’m after”. He refers, in a typical cascade of inspirations, to the castle in Kafka, the golden bowl in Henry James and the Hitchcockian object, the MacGuffin, that is both everything and nothing.
In one sense, The Blot enters new territory for its author. Its centrepiece is a wincingly intricate description of the surgery performed on Bruno by a Jimi Hendrix-obsessed California surgeon. There’s a hint, too, that the story ends with the gambler descending into the underworld. “It’s my first horror novel,” he claims. “I like Poe, and creepy Philip K Dick novels and David Cronenberg movies, and I’ve always thought of myself as a dark writer, but this is utterly different.”
In other ways, however, the novel returns to familiar Lethem themes. When Bruno travels to the San Francisco Bay Area for his operation, he is forced to recall his childhood in Berkeley and his absent mother, a countercultural dropout. As a struggling writer, Lethem spent 10 years working in bookshops in the university city (“Berzerkely”, as one character has it), and he uses his local expertise when tackling two other favourite subjects – toxic real estate developers and the hazards of gentrification.
A recuperating Bruno, masked and unmoored, gets mixed up with anarchist protests, in which he joins with Berkeley students. It’s another unfolding of Lethem’s interest in challenging politics, and I ask him about Occupy Wall Street, which he visited and addressed in 2011, two years before the publication of Dissident Gardens. “It might sound ridiculous but it changed my life. I had displaced my own left thinking into the past and it made me realise that was lazy and indulgent … It gave capitalism back its name, so you could be an anti-capitalist in America again. Bernie Sanders was utterly the product of that.”
In Dissident Gardens, Lethem reflects, he was trying to get at “an anti-capitalist form of Americanism”, the idea of “left desire, the hunger for something you can’t see in front of you, the sense that the world is not enough”. Occupy was never “a thing in quarantine, coming from nowhere and then laughably disappearing into nothing … we are walking around changed. Because of what was embodied in that moment, left desire unfroze.”
As a parallel, Lethem mentions the insight of the theorist Laurence Rickels that the election in 2008 of Barack Obama wasn’t, as is sometimes thought, the end of the civil rights era, but the opposite – in the late 60s, the whole question of race was merely frozen, unfinished and unresolved. Obama’s presidency represented its restarting, not least with the rise of Black Lives Matter. The moment of its suspension “was what, as a child in the inner city in the early 70s, I was an intimate witness to,” Lethem continues. “That’s what The Fortress of Solitude deals with.”
The novelist feels that he too absorbed the belief that the issue of race had been taken care of, that the future would be “post-racial”. And yet “African Americans were still the underclass, living in these disastrous quarantines and housing projects”. There was so much left undone, but people decided to pretend all was well. “The cognitive dissonance was immense. It’s why we have such a racist America right now.”
Lethem insists he has no special insight into the Trump phenomenon, though he has been in a “fever to understand”: “I’ll read my way out of this somehow!” He feels it’s important to recognise that Trump represents “not something that just happened, a thunderbolt that broke our reality. The reason it is so vertiginous is that it is an unmasking of things that were gravely wrong on all kinds of levels.”
“That’s not to say that Trump’s daily behaviour isn’t distractingly creepy, that it’s not a stark contrast to the classy, poised, easy-to-identify-with vibe that we were getting off Obama. But it’s not just a before and after.” Part of any way forward is to look to “the giant unconscious beneath the surface” of the “rational experience of politics and history”. As a writer, Lethem feels he should be an “honest witness, recording my own reactions” to the ongoing administration of the “craven, gold-plated Ponzi-capitalist”. It is no accident that the action of the novel he is currently writing – about a New Yorker pulled to southern California – is set at the moment of Trump’s victory.
Lethem has been teaching at Pomona since 2011. When I bring up Lionel Shriver’s address last year on cultural appropriation, he says his students alerted him to it, and explains carefully why he thinks the tone of her intervention made it “a disaster area”. “The ground she’s claiming is the ground I live on – writing about other people than myself – and I should feel that she bravely fought for who and what I am.” But he “didn’t want to be spoken for” on her terms.
“I hope that if my students chose to pick up The Fortress of Solitude, and were reading the chapters written from the point of view of the [African-American] singer Barrett Rude Jr, they wouldn’t see it as being any different from the extraordinary way that James Baldwin writes about – and from the point of view of – his white characters in Another Country.
“Now,” Lethem continues, “the immediate response to this is: wait a minute, you and Baldwin don’t have equal privilege, so it’s not the same act.” But what is crucial, Lethem insists, is “the ethical freight that comes with my understanding that Baldwin made his gesture from a different place, and then finding it possible to make my gesture anyway”. It’s by no means “a simple thing”; other people’s needs have to be deeply considered. It’s far from “putting on a Mexican hat” (as Shriver did, giving her speech), and “making fun of people … it’s a day-to-day, moment-by-moment, line-by-line” process, “created by love, not created by defiance”. He pauses and says he’s in danger of welling up. “It’s created by humbling yourself.”
Lethem’s predecessor in his Pomona College chair was David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008. “When I got here it was still fresh; colleagues taught with him and were still suffering from the wrenching experience. It was like I was the triage on a still open wound … or a Henry James short story – a great man heavily present in his absence, and you were trying to figure out what his message was for you.”
Being appointed as Foster Wallace’s successor was another indication of Lethem’s growing prestige. It’s many years since he worked in those Berkeley bookshops, a little-known writer producing the kind of spirited pastiche now seen again in the opening of The Blot. As “a middle-aged novelist”, he thinks back to the days when he would excitedly discover a new writer, and read all their novels and essays in rapid succession – “it was like I was skeletonising the body of work; I was the piranhas”. These days, he worries for those admirers or reviewers rushing their way through the entire shelf of his books: under such circumstances, “I wouldn’t want to read all of me”.
• The Blot is published by Jonathan Cape.