Detective Fiction Is a Postwar Metaphor
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: Why is the detective motif so pervasive in film and literature?
Jonathan Letham: The detective motif, well, it’s a number of things all at once. It’s a really, really flexible, vital, fluent metaphor for the alienated observer who is nevertheless compelled to act that we all frequently feel ourselves to be in the teeth of the 20th and now the 21st Centuries. We’re all sort of wanting to hide in our office and drink the whiskey bottle in the drawer and then... you know, and savor the solace of our own dry contemptuous wit, but then are somehow startled again and again to find ourselves both complicit with the action before us and falling in love with the character that comes and asks us, begs for our involvement and suddenly we’re inside the story. The detective is always trying to be outside the story... and always ends up inside.
Well this is a metaphor for life in the 20th century. It’s also you know I mean this... One of the things that, when I began to study the hardboiled detectives that I was so attracted to when I first wanted to write that kind of story, I was reading the Ross McDonald novels and rereading all the Chandler books and going deeper into the origin myths of this image. You know it’s so easy to overlook really, really crucial parts of this image. The detective wears a trench coat. A trench coat is an explicit reference to trench warfare. Trench warfare was World War I. The hardboiled detective was, to begin with, a veteran of World War I who had come back traumatized from a kind of violence, brutality, a despair at what mankind was capable of... that transformed philosophy, politics, literature, everything. And this man in a trench coat is, among other things, a traumatized veteran unable to confront this material directly in civilian life because it seems irretrievably distant from the surface reality of peacetime.
So it’s an urgent historical question that is being enunciated. The answer isn’t there, but the question is formed, how do we live after what we saw in World War I? And well when was the great second flowering of this image, especially in cinema? Right after World War II. We have another shock to absorb. Even worse, we could do that a second time. We could set up camps and film noir is a translation of the nightmare of the 20th century into the suburban optimistic manifest destiny American dream of the peacetime '50s, the prosperity and it is a shattering conflation of one part of the middle of the century with another, so we needed film noir to say how irreconcilable these two stories were.
Recorded on September 25, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
The detective tries to be outside the story, hiding in his office with his bottle of whiskey in the desk drawer, yet he always ends up inside it. This alienated observer, who is nevertheless compelled to act, is a metaphor for life in the 20th century.
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