Jonathan Lethem fulfilled

BY DI STAFF | JUNE 26, 2014 5:00 AM

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Jonathan Lethem, the bestselling author of nine novels, will read from his most recent, Dissident Gardens, at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 5 p.m. Saturday. In 2005, Lethem received a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant,” for his “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” The Daily Iowan had the chance to ask Lethem a few questions about his work and upcoming visit to Iowa City while he was in Italy.

The Daily Iowan: Could you describe Dissident Gardens, your newest novel?

Jonathan Lethem: Three generations of a family of outsider intellectual New Yorkers dreaming of revolution, and sacrificing themselves to that dream. It’s sort of a Fortress of Solitude for my mother’s generation — a 1950s girl from red-diaper Queens, looking across the bridge to Manhattan and dreaming of another life, while still being helplessly entrenched in the place she came from. Plus folk music, baseball, sex in public restrooms, the Occupy movement (tangentially), CIA mercenaries in Nicaragua, and a game show called “The Who, What, or Where Game” (which I didn’t invent).

I wanted to write about these women, their families, their extended reality zones, and all the attendant absurdity, drama, beauty, and damage that came with lives so entrenched in a hunger for a Left transformation of American life. It was the lives themselves that dragged me — screaming, sometimes — into weaving the tapestry of history and politics and culture that was required to set them in context. 

DI: You’ve said you watched Star Wars numerous times when it was first released and read the entire works of Philip K. Dick when you were younger. Do you think these experiences influenced your decision to write in the science-fiction genre? How would you describe your genre of writing?

Lethem: Well, the two are rather uneasy bedfellows in your question. Star Wars was a kind of convulsive enthusiasm for me at age 13, the summer it was released. The charm was already pretty well curdled for me by the time the third film came out, when I was in college, and I wrote that essay that explores the obsession more or less simply to comprehend and purge it as a life phase. I haven’t taken much nourishment from anything to do with Star Wars since I supplanted that film with Kubrick, Godard, Welles, Altman, Kurosawa and a host of other, livelier cinephilic preoccupations, in my 20s.

On the other hand: Philip K. Dick, whose novels I happened to discover right around the same time, has been a gift that keeps on giving. Despite the famous infelicities in his prose and eccentricities in his life and career, I think he’s as relevant and urgent and exciting an influence to me now at 50 as he was at 15 — more importantly, I think he’s one of the great American writers of the last century, and I’m lucky to have come upon him when I was so exquisitely sensitive to the lexicon and iconography within which he wrote. That’s to say, science fiction of various kinds and qualities (including, I guess, Star Wars) made me ready to get into Philip K. Dick, and then he became a big part of my wanting to be a writer, and in particular to be a writer like Philip K. Dick. So, when I set out, I wrote strongly under his influence, and some of that was published, and strongly marks the first impression I made on readers (those few who found my way to my first couple of books). But I never situated myself simply in the [science-fiction] genre — I wanted to do that and a lot of other things, often at the same time, in the same books. 

DI: You studied painting and filmmaking in high school; have you thought of branching out professionally to other media — film, visual art, television, etc.?

Lethem: Nah, I’m too well fulfilled as a novelist, really. Especially with my sidelines in stories and essays. I can do everything I want to do, and it draws tremendously on my engagement with these other forms — my old training as a painter is still in there somewhere, too, fueling my interest in the books and stories as formal objects. I try to put the vitality of pop songs and movies and television into the prose, and the narrative, and the characters. Life’s too short to spread yourself so thin — I’ve got a lot of other books I want to write.

Who: Jonathan Lethem
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque
Admission: Free

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