Bogus Nostalgia for a Perfect Brooklyn

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.

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