Bogus Nostalgia for a Perfect Brooklyn
Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and essayist known for his genre-bending work that draws on science fiction and detective fiction. He was born in 1964 to an artist father and an activist mother, who moved their family into Brooklyn before it was fashionable. His mother, Judith Lethem, died of cancer when he was 13, an experience which Letham says has haunted him and his writing ever since. In high school, Jonathan followed in his father's footsteps, attending the alternative High School of Music & Art in New York. He matriculated at Bennington College in Vermont before dropping out in his sophomore year to move to California and pursue writing.
Lethem's first novel "Gun, With Occasional Music," a sci-fi/hard-boiled detective hybrid met with enthusiastic reviews and was a finalist for the 1994 Nebula Award. His fifth novel, "Motherless Brooklyn," won a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1999, and 2003's "The Fortress of Solitude" was listed as one of The New York Times's editor's choice books from that year. His most recent novel is "Chronic City," which is set in a surreal version of Manhattan's Upper East Side.
In 2010, Lethem was hired as the Roy Edward Disney '51 Chair of Creative Writing at Pomona College, a position formerly held by the late novelist David Foster Wallace.
Question: Do you find nostalgia misleading?
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, there is a hugely bogus script that things fall into in American culture life that there was always just the moment before we began to you know just before we arrived it was all perfect. Things were great. It was a golden time and we have to fight to get back to that perfect simple place. And this it just purveyed so many different realms, high, low, in the middle, the arts, politics. It’s this really strange dream that people insist on dreaming that it was just good a minute ago and now we’ve ruined it.
And I mean there is a lot of things that we’re ruining all the time, but that’s not to say that there was this sanctuary, this moment in the past that we should be so self-reproachingly trying to reconstruct. That seems like a lot of nonsense and I try to puncture it wherever I can, even though I’m an American. I’m susceptible. I probably indulge it in all sorts of ways. I’m you know I mean in a book like "The Fortress of Solitude," I’m both complicit with a nostalgia for imaginary perfect Brooklyns that just preceded my own, and I’m trying to examine that impulse and expose that impulse. And I think if I wasn’t exemplifying it, if I wasn’t susceptible to it, I wouldn’t have the same insights I do into how treacherous it is, so sometimes the best testimony comes from inside these perplexities.
Question: Society often paints change as either sweepingly utopian or dystopian. Do you buy it?
Jonathan Letham: You know I began making fun of this tendency in my first novel, in "Gun, with Occasional Music." On the second or third page I think the main character opens up a package that has been sent to his office and there is an anti-gravity pen. It’s a ballpoint pen that floats out of the package when he opens it up and he realizes well they’ve finally done it. They’ve gone and created anti-gravity and what do they use it for? It’s like a promotional pen for a stationery company or something and then he tries to use it and the ballpoint, you know the ink is very bad. It’s a bulky, crappy little ballpoint pen that just happens to float, and he throws it away except it won’t stay in his wastebasket.
That is how change comes. And it’s never as sweepingly utopian or dystopian as we hope or fear. It’s usually much more kind of neutral verging on dull than that, and it’s all about what use it gets put to and you know I mean if you look back at when radio was invented there was a kind of beautiful hysteria about what this meant for human civilization that voices would travel now through the air. And, yeah, I mean it was transformative, but it was also like Pepsident commercials and really back crooners night and day. And then television comes along and among the claims that are made that are very similarly, you know, or you know film is introduced and again and again you see the rhetoric of crisis, moral panic at what these technologies will produce and futuristic exaltation at how they’re going to destroy all previous modes of discourse and communication. You know they do and they don’t.
It’s like the e-book. You know we’re now going to have like e-books and paper books probably for a good long time. And it’s very exciting that the market share may have crept in one year from 2% to 12%. It’s revolutionary in one sense, but, lo and behold, 20 years after the first inkling that publishing was going to be transformed we still do buy books in paper and glue and cloth boards and people really like them and they’re probably going to like them for awhile yet. There is just this weird persistence to the human use of these delivery systems.
Recorded on September 25, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
There is a bogus script in American life that everything was better during some imagined time in the past. We tend to characterize change as either sweepingly utopian or dystopian, but it’s usually much more neutral—verging on dull.
Is it acceptable to write a story from the perspective of someone who is completely unlike you?
- Man Booker Prize-winning writer Yann Martel, a Canadian man, has written from the perspectives of a man with AIDS, a body-switching woman, an Indian boy, and 20th-century Portuguese widowers.
- Is it acceptable to write from the perspective of someone who is completely unlike you? Martel believes these transgressions put empathetic imagination into practice, allowing your mind to go where your body cannot.
- In Martel's case, it's the recipe for great art—books that have been loved and read by millions. "[W]e are who we are in relation to others," says Martel. "But the key thing is the empathetic imagination, and the empathetic imagination is the great traveler. And travelers necessarily cross borders. And not only do they have to but it's a thrill to do so. It's a thrill encountering the other."
A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.
- Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
- Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
- This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
The inventor Nikola Tesla's esoteric beliefs included unusual theories about the Egyptian pyramids.