Jonathan Lethem

In the Absence of that Conversation

Jonathan Lethem, discussing his most recent novel, Chronic City, with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (January 28, 2010):

“I was very interested in thinking about the condition of an actor, someone who’s learned to operate within scripts that are handed to them — whether the scripts are worth anything or not. It seemed to me that, in a way, stood for the problem of a lot of us as we get through our days. The scripts right now aren’t very good, but we don’t know how to step outside them very readily or at all.”

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Chronic City“A writer, a social satirist, looking for ways to exemplify the hypocrisies of contemporary economic disparities — the unacknowledged class system — it’s almost impossible not to find easy targets. It’s so near at hand that you only have to turn your hand and it falls into your grasp. And so I couldn’t be terribly interested with looking for those kinds of symbols. Instead I wanted to talk about what happens when you and I and everyone we know lives with them right in front of our face — two inches from our face — and yet they’re not spoken of. It’s the denial. It’s the fact that symbols of this kind of reality proliferate wildly in books and in life.

Every day you open the newspaper and you find another allegory that would’ve made Karl Marx’s jaw drop — or Roland Barthes’s jaw drop. And yet we all go on reading that newspaper. We all go on moving through our days and this is the subject of the book: what we do instead, what we think about, and how we behave in the absence of that conversation. When everything is as exaggerated and hysterically out of whack and yet somehow the machine tumbles forward day-to-day. We wake up and take our positions inside it. Well, that’s an interesting subject and an elusive one. The social satire is not elusive at all.

All you have to do is take it to the ultimate degree and then you’ve got John Carpenter’s They Live or Idiocracy. Then you’ve said it as stridently as you possibly can. You’ve made the cartoon of reality into a cartoon and then it can be shrugged off again. I was trying not to shrug it off. I was trying to inhabit it with these characters. It’s the fact that we all live in a situation that is patently absurd in many ways and yet we we have no opportunity to take it lightly. We’re living real lives. It’s tragic…I don’t mean to fall into the trap of saying there can be a non-ideological space, but you do the best you can. You meet what’s before you. You try to solve the cartoon conundrums that come your way with as much real sincerity as you can bring to them. ”  

A Gift and a Commodity

Jonathan Lethem talking with Michael Silverblatt (KCRW's Bookworm, 7/19/07) about his latest work, You Don't Love Me Yet:

What bothers me about plagiarism is not that I don’t believe there can be such a thing. Anyone can identify the fringe activity where something is appropriated joylessly and unimaginatively and deceptively. And we can all condemn that very easily. But what fascinates me is that people work so hard to ignore the resemblance between that activity and what artists do routinely, necessarily all the time in their procedure which is grab on to stuff, move it around, transform it. And when the same thing is done and value is added and influence is acknowledged, well this is culture making. It's not some minority activity, this is culture making at its most central. This is what people do.

It's not that an act of art making is either a commodity transaction or a gift transaction—to use Lewis Hyde's vocabulary, the author of The Gift—but that it’s innately both. If I do what I do—do what I mean to do—when I offer a book into the world, sure I’d like to get paid. But if it’s any good at all, I hope to transmit something far more valuable than the $23.95 you’ve shelled out at the bookstore. I want it to sink into you and become a part of you and trouble you. It’s something I could never ideally be repaid for and I wouldn’t want to try. So it’s a gift and a commodity at the same moment. And this is what artists do.

Inhaling the Memory of an Act Never Experienced

"Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing."

-- Jonathan Lethem, from The Ecstasy of Influence