Yeah I know I know: you want me to shut up about Jonathan Lethem already. Well too bad. On top of this most recent book I’ve got at least one more coming down the pipe for sure. What do you want from me? The guy is funny, he imaginative, and you can practically hear him thinking about the language as you read.
A few years back I had just finished The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and when I brought it up among other readers I kept hearing Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude mentioned in the same sentence. I’d never heard of this Lethem guy, but my hopes for a Chabon clone were high. Who wouldn’t want to read more stuff like Chabon? The dude writes forests and makes you wanna examine the leaves! But I wasn’t sure I wanted to jump right into another Great American Novel after having just finished an incredible Pulitzer doorstop like K&C, so first I picked up Lethem’s short story collection Men & Cartoons.
Men & Cartoons left me kinda flat. Some of the stories were so short as to require absurdism to masquerade as profundity if the guy wanted to hint at any meaning under the weird surface, but they were undeniably original and funny (cf. “The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door”–yes, that is the title). The rest reeked of New Yorker bait and tasted a bit flat, seemed to lack any resolution. Eventually I’d realize that Men & Cartoons was his attempt to bridge his past and his present: he didn’t want to abandon the genre work he’d started his career with, but he knew “literary” fiction was the way forward. So he split the difference. It makes the book uneven, and it left me unsure about pursuing the guy’s work any further.
6 months later, on a whim and wanting to give the guy one more shot, I picked up Motherless Brooklyn.
It opens at a Zendo! It folds words like dough and gives you sweet hilarious donuts! It’s a big mystery helmed by a befuddled guy with a leaden tongue who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, and shit if I couldn’t relate to that! It’s a great book, and I think 100 years from now if people are still talking about books they’ll be talking about Motherless Brooklyn as a worthy postmodern successor to the noir style. Motherless Brooklyn was the book that set me off and I’ve been chasing down everything I can get my hands on ever since.
Gun With Occassional Music was the first Lethem sci-fi I read and as a straight aping of the hard-boiled style it’s a pure joy to read. It’s a big mash note to Raymond Chandler and I can’t help loving it. It needs to be a movie. Finally, with some skepticism given my experience with Men & Cartoons, I picked up The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye, a collection of early sci-fi shorts.
Thankfully Wall proved to be more consistent than M&C. Though not all the stories are fantastic, there’s a unity of tone that makes them all feel of a piece rather than hackneyed and disconnected. These feel like they were designed to go together. Like his best work all of these stories are breathtakingly original, a little dark, cynically funny, and full of subtly presented thought-provoking big ideas. Witness “Vanilla Dunk,” a sports story where all the players wear exosuits programmed with the moves of legendary players. What does the game mean anymore when sampling is all that’s left? And is it right that a cocky white rookie won the Michael Jordan skills in the draft lotto?
Or check “The Happy Man,” about the havoc wreaked on a man’s family when a court orders him resurrected from the dead, but mandates that his consciousness has to spend irregular periods in hell while his body keeps working and living in a zombie-like state. Lethem has a lot to say about daddy issues, and this story is one of most brilliant absent father metaphors I’ve ever encountered.
“Light and the Sufferer” is the best story in the book. It’s a wrenching piece about a man who’s trying his damndest to get his little brother out of New York and off of crack cocaine. Little brother promises they’ll get out as soon as he finishes unloading this duffel bag and shakes this enigmatic alien off their tail. It’s absolutely haunting.
The rest feel like MFA also-rans. I kept having to resist the urge to write notes in the margins of “Five Fucks” & “Sleepy People”–what’s going on here? you want your reader intrigued, not confused! where’s the closure??–and “The Hardened Criminals” seemed pointlessly sadistic.
“Forever, Said the Duck” is the quirkiest of the group, and it’s the one that most made me want to revisit Men & Cartoons. I’m pretty sure it’s about a couple who fire up their hard drive and call up simulations of all their exes for a cocktail party, but I’m still not sure why everyone starts turning into animals and historical figures halfway through. “Forever” is the most spectacular failure in the book, and it’s instructive in that regard: in his best work Lethem makes cartoony situations seem painfully real and exposes real life for the farce that it is, but in “Forever” and elsewhere here he tries to spice up reality by exaggerating the lines and keeping half the page (and the reader) in the shade.
As I write I’m working my way through The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction and Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Growing Up simultaneously. Both very good thus far, and I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts here. Also tonight I picked up a few more books:
- Orange Pulp: Stories of Mayhem, Murder & Mystery From Florida
- The Gutter & The Grave by Ed McBain
- New Black Mask Quarterly #1
- High Windows by Philip Larkin
Gee, do you think I’m on a hard-boiled kick? The idea, insofar as I ever have one when I’m picking up new books, is to fill up the well with ideas and speech patterns of the old masters and apprentices so that I’ve got something to work from with this Chandler-ish dystopian bordertown story (book?) I’m working on.
Now it is 2 am and I am going to bed. Hey, I wrote a thousand words! I haven’t done that in a blog post in ages. Hurrah. Congrats if you made it this far.