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Surprise Yourself: A Playboy Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

Surprise Yourself: A Playboy Conversation with Jonathan Lethem: Gary Friedman / Getty

Gary Friedman / Getty

Jonathan Lethem is one of the literary heavyweights of his generation, along with Bret Easton Ellis, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace—the last of whom he replaced as Pomona College’s Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing. Both Pomona dons have the gift of conjuring otherworldly levels of empathy, comedy and imagination.

Lethem was raised by radical leftists among the “raw shambolic splendor” of 1960s and ‘70s Brooklyn that informed his classic The Fortress of Solitude, about the boyhoods of two friends, one black and one white. The 52-year-old author remains prolific and omnivorous, publishing 21 books in 21 years. The Ecstasy of Influence is a thrilling nonfiction opus about Lethem’s inspirations. He evangelizes for comic books and Roberto Bolaño and collects great Bob Dylan and James Brown interviews. The book conveys the intoxication of finding cool stuff, from the Talking Heads to Kiwi author Ronald Hugh Morrieson. His take on Dave Eggers—“watched him grow mired in grotesque fame”—is characteristically sharp.

Following 2013’s Dissident Gardens, tracking three generations of New York leftists, Lethem’s new book is A Gambler’s Anatomy. In it, health issues force backgammon professional Bruno Alexander to forego the Singapore-Berlin circuit for the Bay Area he swore he would never return to. “San Francisco was a futuristic cartoon of the dozy, cozy city he recalled… The underside was as gritty as Mumbai.” A Gambler’s Anatomy has an urgent, wide-ranging sense of unease and uncertainty.

We spoke to Lethem from his Pomona office, and from a North Carolina hotel at the start of the Gambler’s Anatomy tour. Via Skype, he is a passionate, open interviewee. We conversed about revolution, masturbation, Victorian hypocrisy and the horrors of Rudy Giuliani.


Doubleday

Doubleday

You were partying in New York on September 10, 2001, with college bud Bret Easton Ellis, which you wrote about in The Ecstasy of Influence. (“An element of Stockholm syndrome in the way I could still be lured by Bret’s glum magnetism.”)
The persistence of Bret’s vision continues to fascinate me. The renewable resource of his notoriety and the way he still scandalizes people. I have lots of students who still read him. I think, in some ways, Bret’s had the life of a child star. He was dealing with celebrity before he completely constructed a full self, and I think he’s come through that pretty well.

I agree with you that Trump is the supreme symbol of everything that’s wrong with America, reminding us of Patrick Bateman’s obsession. “Not Donald Trump again,” Bateman’s fiancée complains. “Oh god. Is that why you were acting like such a buffoon?”
Trump’s still a short-fingered vulgarian. There is this '80s hangover, that’s still the world we’re living in. Donald Trump is this incredible efflorescence of the id of the American Psycho era, still roaming the planet [laughs]. So capable of enthralling us with obtuse, flamboyant greed… When I look at him I see this deep, deep reservoir of misery.

Philip Roth has that chestnut about “American reality out-fictionalises fiction.” It’s surreal watching Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Zero-Tolerance, harsh punishment for disadvantaged minorities involved in the most minor crimes. Yet here he is as the number one surrogate for an indecent predator.
Oh God, American hypocrisy takes so many extreme forms. We’re certainly being treated to a rich buffet of hypocrisies right now in the contortions that people have to go through to justify that Trump vote. But, I guess Giuliani hates Clinton enough to sacrifice nearly every rectitude that seems to define his character. It was a very cartoonish rectitude to begin with. Giuliani is scary.

You write so well in your semi-autobiographical novel The Fortress of Solitude about issues around race. The unprecedented, scorched-earth opposition we’ve seen to Obama’s moderate presidency, and the racism of the Trump train, show America couldn’t be farther from being this post-racial society people cited Obama’s win as proving.
Five or six years ago Laurence Rickels wrote that people have been claiming that Obama’s election was the culmination or the final triumph of the Civil Rights era, and he thought it was exactly the opposite. He thought it was the restarting of the Civil Rights era. Of course it looks completely prescient now when you see how much there’s been a steady, terrifying unpacking of all the completely unresolved racism in our society. And the desperate need for its confrontation that’s been correspondingly aroused with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Where is the moment that the Civil Rights era was frozen? That’s the world I grew up in, the freezing of it. The Jim Crow laws had been overthrown and this idea circulated that everything was now taken care of, that it was all good now. I came to consciousness in a world where I absorbed this belief, that now we were going to be post-racial in some way. That was totally absurd in the actual enactment in life on the street in Brooklyn, where there is so much economic inequality and unbelievable burden of different kinds of denial and deprivation that people had undergone. Something had been accomplished in the '60s and something had been uncorked, and now it was like there was going to be a cloud of unknowing that would descend where we couldn’t think straight, we couldn’t resolve it. There was so much left undone and there was so much unconfronted in the heart of the American life, that the idea of real repair, real equity, was still impossibly far away, and we were all going to pretend. It’s been an area of tremendous discomfort and shame and paralysis. Maybe this really is the restarting of something. It feels like it involves a lot of pain, but it’s probably necessary.

“I am the disturbed I seek to comfort, and also the comfortable I seek to disturb,” is your excellent creative philosophy.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s extending the truism that doesn’t originate with me. Realising that it’s not a solipsistic situation, that I am first and foremost trying to understand things for myself. I don’t have everything figured out. To awaken myself, to console myself, to grasp my own intuitions and apprehensions and fears and explicate them. Make them tangible, try to get a hold of them, pin them to the page.

“Today I want to eat and fuck,” you wrote in response to 9/11. Can you elaborate on the nexus between sex and creativity?
Most simply they’re appetites for being alive, the opposite of death. To eat and fuck, and to make something new or crack a joke or try to surprise someone with a thought that has never occurred before, surprise yourself. Call it a response to the universe. It’s a way of saying, “I’m still kicking.”

I enjoyed your Playboy short story Le Petit Mort and The New Yorker one The Porn Critic. Irvine Welsh told me excessive porn culture is dangerous. So many people he knows have “masturbated themselves into fuckin’ oblivion.”
I’m not quite as pitted against masturbation as a human mode as Irvine Welsh seems to be. Certainly lots of porn is objectionable, but the bottom line is masturbation is here to stay: masturbation has a future [laughs].

Maybe this really is the restarting of something. It feels like it involves a lot of pain, but it’s probably necessary.

There’s sex in A Gambler’s Anatomy, too. Sex is a subject you’re going to continue to explore?
I think about writing about sex the same way I think about writing about drug use or the polymorphous experimentation of adolescent life or fannishness, craven adulation or faddish obsession. I like to turn over the rock of myself and look at what’s squirming around and name what’s to be named. I think my job is to include what I know is part of life in the work and it’s true of lost causes, loving American communism or the New York Mets. I like to be embarrassed, I like to make myself in the mirror uncomfortable, because I think I’m usually getting at something that is real, that is part of life, that hasn’t been completely tamed or domesticated or gentrified. It’s maybe embarrassing or arouses anxiety, but it has some juice in it.

We like to think that we’re not hung up as a culture. But even when there’s a consensual sex scandal, everyone’s so disgusted they need to know everything about it.
I couldn’t agree more that the dirty secret of the contemporary mass culture self-image is that we flatter ourselves as being extremely jaded and sophisticated, and under this veneer of having more nudity on television or whatever it is, we’re awfully prim and censorious and Victorian about so many different things. And yet always under the disguise to ourselves of this congratulating ourselves, for being the most worldliest people that have ever come along. 

Like Dissident Gardens, A Gambler’s Anatomy reminds me of that Tolstoy quote: “Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to change their bad behaviour.”  
The best revolution would be one where we didn’t have to change our bad behavior, that could somehow encompass everything that the human is. I think maybe that’s the one that’s waiting to happen. Where our deep natures could be recognised by ourselves, by one another, and in some form of social organisation that dissolved those rival claims to be good and to feel good. 

Berlin is a tactile presence in A Gambler’s Anatomy, and a cheap-rent mecca for young writers these days. What’s your experience?
I lived there for five months when I was beginning this book and I felt uncommonly comfortable. Germany is obviously a very loaded idea and I grew up with it as a very terrifying idea, because my grandmother filled my head with notions of the Holocaust. But Berlin now has this very enthralling relationship with its own history. Very alive. Every place you go has a past and present existence, or several past existences underneath the skin of the present. People will talk to you about what a given street means or a given building means, with this remorseful, scrupulous intensity. The place is loaded with meaning.

I admire how many Germans confront their unconscionable history in Berlin, too. Meanwhile, the likes of Bill O’Reilly object when Michelle Obama mentioned the White House being built by slaves.
This is something that I’ve been obsessed with all my life and it’s in my very earliest work. Thinking about the unholy combination in American life of the utopian impulse, the self-invention and the utopian imperative that comes with American identity. This beautiful possibility that you can create the future here, you can make something that doesn’t exist, you can live other than people have lived before. This thing that makes America so remarkable is also such a treacherous invitation to this indulgence of historical amnesia, to wilful ignorance of the responsibility to understand that you are an actor in historical terms, that you exist in relation to these things. Like, for instance, slavery.

As David Foster Wallace’s replacement as Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College, you’re particularly fond of short stories?
Yes. To me the heart of his work is in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion. Those books are magnificent.

You mention in The Ecstasy of Influence “he made a lot of people feel less lonely”. Still?
His effect on young readers is uncanny; the power of identification that his style generates. What’s interesting to me is to see whether or not that’s going to remain true, or whether it was tied to a certain specific age cohort. The way F. Scott Fitzgerald or Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac generated this overwhelming, almost viral, degree of persuasion about an outlook or self-definition in young readers in certain periods.

What do you hope A Gambler’s Anatomy will accomplish?
I want it to be enthralling. I want it to be impossible to put down. Even if you might have to read certain chapters with hands over your eyes, I want it to be a “I can’t go on, I must go on” reading experience. I hope it’s a happy nightmare for people.


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