Thursday, May 9, 2013

Jonathan Lethem

Of the handful of authors I've discovered in the past year or so since I started exploring the fiction of the 21st century, Jonathan Lethem is the one I can enthuse over with the greatest passion. His novels, like those of Tom McCarthy, are verging on science fiction and are influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and P.K. Dick. Lethem adds his experiences growing up in Brooklyn, New York and his appreciation of popular culture. His feel for character and setting, and the English language is stronger than either Vonnegut or Dick.

I first came across Lethem reading his latest novel Chronic City. The main character is a quasi-celebrity, an ex child actor in a TV sitcom who is now married to an astronaut stranded on a crippled space station orbiting the earth. The drama makes excellent fodder for obsessive news/gossip coverage and his waning celebrity status has been given a boost. He is befriended by an obscure part time writer of DVD liner notes and full time conspiracy theorist. He's drawn into a new circle of acquaintances and finds himself at the edge of a new unreality. How far does he descend into the rabbit hole, and what's at the bottom? That's the story of Chronic City.

Fortress of Solitude is a bit of a departure for Lethem. It's semi-autobiographical with only some of the fantastical elements of his other work. We follow the main character from the age of six when his bohemian parents move into a black neighbourhood of Brooklyn, anxious to push the logic and idealism of racial integration to its conclusion. The boy makes friends, both black and white, and gets caught up in the worlds of comics and graffiti art. At the end of the book, the hero is in his forties, living in California, working in the music business. Fortress of Solitude is about race relations, particularly, how the hero copes with the almost daily racial hazing he is subject to as a child. He is never actually hurt physically, but he's humiliated, shamed and forced to hand over whatever coins he's not secreted away. It's also a story of his neighbourhood and its gentrification, begun with his parents' decision to make it their home. At the end of the book as he visits, he finds the streets full of French restaurants and bistros. Those of his black friends who didn't flee or end up in prison are marginalized.

Here's a couple of paragraphs from near the beginning of his latest, Chronic City:

“But I know your secret.”

I was startled. Did I have a secret? If I did, it was one of the things I’d misplaced in the last few years. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten from there to here, made the decisions that led from my child stardom to harmlessly dissipated Manhattan celebrity, nor how it was that I deserved the brave astronaut’s love. I had trouble clearly recalling Janice, that was part of my sorrow. The day she launched for the space station I must have undertaken to quit thinking of Janice, even while promising to keep a vigil for her here on earth. I never dared tell anyone this fact. So if I had a secret, it was that I had conspired to forget my secret.
Perkus eyed me slyly. Perhaps it was his policy to make this announcement to any new acquaintance, to see what they’d blurt out. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” he told me now. “You’re in a position to learn things.”

What things? Before I could ask, we were off again. Perkus’s spiel encompassed Monte Hellman, Semina Culture, Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, the Mafia’s blackmailing of J. Edgar Hoover over erotic secrets (resulting in the bogus amplification of Cold War fear and therefore the whole of our contemporary landscape), Vladimir Mayakovsky and the futurists, Chet Baker, Nothingism, the ruination Giuliani’s administration had brought to the sacred squalor of Times Square, the genius of The Gnuppet Show, Frederick Exley, Jacques Rivette’s impossible-to-see twelve-hour movie Out 1, corruption of the arts by commerce generally, Slavoj Zizek on Hitchcock, Franz Marplot on G. K. Chesterton, Norman Mailer on Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer on graffiti and the space program, Brando as dissident icon, Brando as sexual saint, Brando as Napoleon in exile. Names I knew and didn’t. Others I’d heard once and never troubled to wonder about. Mailer, again and again, and Brando even more often—Perkus Tooth’s primary idols seemed to be this robust and treacherous pair, which only made Perkus seem frailer and more harmless by contrast, without ballast in his pencil-legged suit. Maybe he ate Jackson Hole burgers in an attempt to burgeon himself, seeking girth in hopes of attracting the attention of Norman and Marlon, his chosen peers.

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