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A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

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Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including, most recently, The Fortress of Solitude. The novel is set in 1970s Brooklyn, and its protagonist, Dylan, shares with Lethem the circumstance of being among the only whites in that neighborhood's first wave of gentrification. By turns tender and brutal, the book is huge (509 pages) and hugely satisfying. Lethem appears at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall on Thu., Oct. 28.

 

Having done so much publicity for The Fortress of Solitude, do you at times feel like you're speaking from a script?

Well, there are times when I feel like Vanna White -- my job is to stand beside the merchandise and wave my hands over it invitingly, to basically act as this quite redundant go-between saying, "Here it is, you're going to like this, take a look." A certain amount of book touring involves just kind of being present -- it's like a talismanic function. People want to come and glimpse the author, even though by definition I'm a lot stupider in person than I am on the page.

 

The Los Angeles Times likened Fortress to a double album because it's "ambitious if somewhat overstuffed."

I like that fine, and I think it makes a lot of sense. It probably had some of the seriousness and beautiful imperfection of a big sprawling double album, of a London Calling or a White Album, as opposed to reaching for the formal perfection of a smaller kind of work.

 

What was the inspiration in Fortress for the Beatles analogy, in which characters riff on how the relationship among The Beatles applies to group dynamics?

It goes back to a couple of high school-era friends who pretty much used to analyze everything in terms of Beatles dynamics: John as genius parent and George as genius child and Paul as enabler parent and Ringo as clown child.

 

This led to a terrible epiphany that in my own work situation I'm Paul.

It's uncomfortable to think that you might be anyone but John, but of course it's relational. There's probably some other sphere in your life where you're John, and another where you're George. People may have deep tendencies to play one or another just according to your disposition and your position in your own natural family. But very strong Pauls tend to invite the "Johnishness" in other people. Of course, it's as fatuous as any other personality typology, but I like it.

 

How do you figure that Fortress has been praised for depicting racial dynamics in a nuanced way, yet hasn't been tagged as political?

The book I hope is resolutely personal. I didn't really write about black issues; I just wrote about black characters. I'm always hesitant to kind of consent to praise for doing something I don't think I really did at all. I didn't really tackle anyone's issues, Caucasian issues or black issues or any other. I really just wrote about a lot of characters who happened to be black. It felt important for me to find the comfort zone to do that, but it certainly wasn't an act of sociological or political or cultural critique in any sense. It was only a fiction writer doing what a fiction writer can do, which is, you know, method acting and ventriloquism.

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