Science Fiction Studies

#75 = Volume 25, Part 2 = July 1998

Fiona Kelleghan

Private Hells and Radical Doubts: An Interview with Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem began publishing short fiction in 1989 with “The Cave Beneath the Falls,” which Locus magazine promoted in its list of recommended stories. Since then, he has received Nebula nominations for the stories “The Happy Man” (1991) and “Five Fucks” (1996). His first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music (1994), a near-future murder mystery, won the 1995 Locus Award for Best First Novel and Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Novel, and was another Nebula nominee. Gun was followed by the novels Amnesia Moon (1995), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and Girl in Landscape (1998), and by the 1997 World Fantasy Award-winning short-story collection The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye (1996). It is not hard to see why Newsweek proclaimed Jonathan Lethem one of “100 people to watch in the next century.”

Born in Manhattan in 1964, Lethem was a voracious and precocious reader in his childhood; he wrote a novel in 1979 about which he says, “I learned to type, at least.” He attended Bennington College in Vermont sporadically in 1982 and 1983, and in 1984 decided to hitchhike alone from Denver to Berkeley, “a thousand miles of desert and mountains through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, with about 40 dollars in my pocket, one of the stupidest and most memorable things I’ve ever done. Those experiences became the seed of Amnesia Moon.” In 1986 he took up residence in Berkeley, where he learned the sales side of the literary industry by working in bookstores. There, he wrote and sold around forty short stories and his first three books; in 1996, he moved back to New York to settle in Brooklyn.

Lethem is widely praised as a brilliant pasticheur—among other influences, Gun, With Occasional Music pays homage to Raymond Chandler, the unsettling road novel Amnesia Moon to Philip K. Dick, the unearthly love-triangle novel As She Climbed Across the Table to the work of Don DeLillo, and Girl in Landscape to various Westerns—but as any knowledgeable sf reader can attest, that powerful narrative voice is ultimately his own. Stories such as “Walking the Moons” (1990), a vicious satire of the extravagant claims for virtual reality; the title-says-it-all comment on the entertainment biz, “The Elvis National Theater of Okinawa” (1992, written with Lukas Jaeger); “Receding Horizon” (1995, written with Carter Scholz), which conflates Franz Kafka with Frank Capra; and “The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom” (1995), a parody of Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” show that Lethem thinks seriously and profoundly about science fiction and other phenomena of late twentieth-century popular culture.

Despite Lethem’s fondness for pastiche and allusion, his fiction displays a harsh skepticism toward received wisdom. His stories reveal a modernist concern with questions of identity, though he is comfortable with postmodern techniques of dramatizing them. He has been listening seriously to the delirious cries of the world, and his work often partakes of that helplessness amid powerful images characteristic of nightmare. His settings can be surreal—they often plunge the reader into an experience of a hellish, artificial, or alien world—but his landscapes smell and feel grittily real, and they are rarely decadent.

Most of Lethem’s stories privilege metaphors of time and sequentiality over metaphors of space and synchrony, thereby revealing a cunning for narrative and a suspicion of the conventions of myth. Even stories which feel like myths leave us without certitude: such as “Holidays” (1996), a calendar of religious holidays as described by... an alien? a farfuture anthropologist? a madman?; or “The Happy Prince” (1993), a pseudofable of operatic love between a migrating swallow and a golden robot which pays homage to Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale of the same name and which may be about selfsacrifice (or may not). The Lethem theory of information flow through the world describes a proliferation of noise and an increasingly rapid distortion of perspective, as if to say that the present is dark enough, but the future is an abyss. His stories are disturbing and disorienting; they are also wickedly funny. Above all, and what is perhaps surprising for a clever young satirist who prefers observation to proselytism, Lethem’s stories can be deeply poignant, as they image countless inescapable minor invasions into our daily lives, and render the stark irrevocability of seeing those ways of life change forever.

This interview was held at Readercon, Westborough, Massachusetts, in July, 1997.

FK: Your books don’t appear to be marketed specifically as science fiction. So what I want you to do is to reassure me that you’re not going to abandon science fiction, that you do love it, you’re based in sf, your roots and influences are sf.

JL: I don’t think I’m going to give you the blanket reassurance that you’re asking for, because for me the question isn’t as simple as that.

I don’t think I’ll ever abandon sf to the extent that I ever was in a position to abandon it, if that reply makes sense. To me sf’s a description that doesn’t completely work. As I experience it, I’ve always been a writer who was absorbed in and obsessed with science fiction, and I will continue to be that kind of a writer. I have projects in mind that are more and less like science fiction than some of the projects I’ve already written. What I can promise is that I won’t ever betray my own sense of the complexity of that question and suddenly pretend to have nothing to do with science fiction. It wouldn’t make any sense. The work wouldn’t be coherent if I insisted that it be read in ignorance of that context or if I tried to reduce the degree to which the work was engaged with that tradition. But it’s also engaged with other sources and other realms and other traditions. It’s also frustrating for me to accept the conditions and deprivations associated with a career exclusively in science fiction. I’ve been very adamant that I not allow myself to be pigeonholed in the larger operations of the publishing industry and the bookselling industry.

FK: We need not only to congratulate you but to thank you for being a crossover writer. It makes the whole field look good.

JL: That’s a nice way to put it. On the one hand, I try not to worry about these issues at all. If I’m talking to someone who I think can be moved on to other topics that seem to me more crucial, I do my damnedest to brush these questions aside, in a way that’s almost disingenuous. I’ll pretend to be oblivious, in the classic American tradition of artists pretending merely to tell their tales. If you asked John Ford or Howard Hawks to analyze their own films, you got this disgruntled, “Oh, come on, you intellectuals can do that. I just make this stuff.” The advantage in that is that it throws off the yoke of certain kinds of questions. Sometimes it seems oppressive even to acknowledge my own awareness, which is in fact a hyperconsciousness, of category and genre issues, both on the practical level of marketing my books and on the deep level of the sources and inspirations and even the writing process.

In fact, my own sense of it is extremely complicated. It never makes sense to me to simply say, “I am writing a sciencefiction novel,” let alone to say, “I am simply a science-fiction writer,” any more than it would make sense for me to say that I’m not, or that I’m a mystery writer, or a magical realist. But I promise you here and now, Fiona, I will never betray my powerful sense of origin in and indebtedness to and involvement with science fiction.

FK: Okay, fairly put. Stories such as “Light and the Sufferer” [1995] and “Walking the Moons” contain a cautionary note about the sf elements. In the first one, the visit to Earth of the aliens appears to be as aimless and meaningless as the life of the crack addicts they follow around, and the glamour of virtual reality is viciously undermined by the squalor of the young "explorer’"s reality in “Walking the Moons.” Do you want to comment on this pessimism?

JL: It doesn’t always feel to me explicitly like pessimism. Interesting, because I haven’t seen those two stories yoked together in the way your question yokes them. But it makes sense to me, and I can think of other examples of my tendency to problematize the science fiction, the futuristic tropes in my stories—the fantastic tropes, because often they’re not particularly science-fictional.

FK: Often they’re displaced from the center in your fiction. I thought of those two as stories in which the sf tropes are central—

JL: —Are central, but are subjected to radical doubt. I think you’re right, although I think that “Light and the Sufferer” is a story where the question of the centrality of the fantastic element is a point that is being argued in the story. The aliens don’t appear until six or seven pages in. The narrator is explicitly worrying about their relevance, or lack of relevance, to the human story that he’s so helplessly involved in.

I think that I have a propensity or weakness for writing meta-fictionally about genre. All of my stories tend to be, at one level, interrogations of the genre they inhabit. Since most of my work is fantastic in some sense, I’m usually asking questions at some level, often subconsciously or automatically, about what happens to a given story when a fantastic element intrudes into it, and this becomes a parallel interrogation into the question of what happens to a human existence when fantastic elements intrude. So the text and the characters are disrupted in a similar way.

But I’m still evading the question of the pessimism that you raised. I guess I feel it’s a traditional pessimism. I don’t identify with any kind of simplistic Luddite position, but I think there’s a strain of exciting and healthy and vibrant skepticism about technology in some sf.... Here’s where I’ll take your question and divide the two stories.

“Walking the Moons” I would class with “‘Forever,’ Said the Duck” [1993] and a recent story called “How We Got in Town and Out Again” [1996] as a sequence where I’m specifically skeptical about claims being made for virtual reality technologies. That was not a conscious choice; I didn’t set out ten years ago to write a series of stories, spread out over a number of years, examining my own resistance to that technology. But living in San Francisco during the years of an intense kind of utopian ideological boom in virtual reality and computer technologies, I felt an instinctive need to represent my own skepticism about claims that were being made that seemed to me naive, founded in a lack of awareness of the corruption inherent in most technological opportunities, and a search for zipless transcendence which seems to me usually a mistake. Virtual reality’s reception was a combination of some of the utopian, consciousness-revolutionizing claims that had been made for radio and film when they appeared, and the utopian nuttiness that surrounded the first experiments with LSD. “We finally have a mechanism by which we can take human consciousness to another level and abandon tired, earthly concerns.” And so I found these resistance stories coming out of me.

Those stories come out of the Galaxy-Frederik Pohl-C.M. Kornbluth-New Maps of Hell tradition where the skeptical 1950's-style science-fiction writer takes a debunking position on his society’s infatuation with technological development, usually in light of some instinctively Marxist sense of how capitalism corrupts the reception of radical technology. Whereas “Light and the Sufferer” can’t be said to participate in that tradition at all. It’s a skeptical story about the—I’m working off the cuff here, because I’ve never analyzed this story from this perspective; I haven’t analyzed it much at all—but I guess the skepticism in that story is about the ability of external forces to provide any relevant assistance to, or even to focus any competent awareness on, the family and personal dramas that always threaten to overwhelm us. It’s a story about interventions. There are two possible interventions in the story. The narrator fails in his intervention into his brother’s life, and he considers a possible intervention on the part of the aliens into his brother’s life and eventually his own, and discovers that’s also hopeless. It’s a codependency story. But there’s zero cultural critique going on there.

Again, I’ll use the word “traditional”: I grew up reading dystopian and skeptical science fiction passionately, and I write that way by default. Most of my stories work from a ground assumption that dystopian realities are plausible ones, that we’re probably living in a dystopia ourselves at the moment. That’s my vocabulary. So any specific skepticisms that arise are against that ground.

FK: Do you outline?

JL: No. I sometimes boast about writing improvisationally, and behind that boast lies a variety of different techniques, none of which involves outlines. Sometimes I know a lot about where I’m going, and sometimes I know very little. I’m not sure the results are evident, but I’ll give you a couple of examples and you can tell me. “Light and the Sufferer” is a short story where I knew nothing about where I was going, as is “Sleepy People.” “Five Fucks” was a story that appeared to me as a single revelation. There was a flash of lightning that illuminated the landscape. All I had to do was then go back into the studio and represent the landscape that had been illuminated to me.

FK: That looks like a carefully plotted story!

JL: “Carefully plotted” is a funny phrase, but it’s a very deliberate story, it’s a very self-aware story. I knew what I was doing all the way through it. There’s improvisation only in the language, in the treatment. There’s always stuff I discover as I go along, but sometimes I’m discovering everything, and sometimes I really know where I’m headed. But I never outline. I jot notes when specific bits of dialogue or language insist themselves upon me before they’re needed. I’ll just jot down a phrase to keep it. But to the extent that I can, I prefer to hold everything, the impending sense of the story, in my head, because it’s that pressure of holding it all in my head that makes me work hard to get it on the page, and also, I think, keeps interesting connections happening. If I took more notes, I would have discharged some of that tension. The story would already be told, in a sense. I wouldn’t still be at full boil when I’m writing.

FK: “The Happy Man” is a curious piece of meta-fiction about a man who travels to Hell. At first we think it’s a literal Hell, then we think it’s metaphorical. Then the narrator insists it’s literal; but then it proves to be a metaphorical construct of Freudian concepts. “The Hardened Criminals” [1995], “The One About the Green Detective” [1996], and “Sleepy People” also seem to me to be generated by literalizing a metaphor. Was the genesis of each of those stories the result of thinking about a phrase and then making it literal?

JL: No. Certainly I work by the method of concretizing metaphor frequently. But rarely do I generate a story as long and complicated as any of the ones you’ve just listed out of what is essentially a pun. There always has to be a stronger impulse, and then sometimes I work backwards to something as apparently specific as the title of “The Hardened Criminals.” But the image of that prison was quite fully developed in my conscious-slash-subconscious before I noticed that in effect what I was talking about was a pun on the phrase “hardened criminals.” The richness of that prison I doubt would have arisen for me if I’d merely noticed that “hardened” is a funny word to put in front of a noun that describes human beings. I may sound a bit defensive on behalf of that story in particular, because I’ve seen in print and heard aloud on panels a couple of times the criticism that in “Hardened Criminals” I’ve piled an enormously serious attempt on the precarious foundation of a pun. The story may very well collapse under its own weight, but it’s not resting initially on a pun. I made a mistake in titling the story so glibly, because it’s misleading.

“Happy Man” even less so. The story came from strange places and insisted itself upon me in a way that’s still unusual for me in my writing process, but I was not conscious of it being a story where I was literalizing metaphors. Often I’m very conscious of it. There’s a story called “Mood Bender” [1994] where I’m plainly and openly and happily making an enterprise of concretizing metaphor. “Happy Man” was not like that. “Happy Man” arose out of a barrage of dream imagery that I wanted to write about and which gradually found a home in this premise of the man who dies and goes to his own private hell. But it certainly didn’t arise because I was meditating on what the meaning of “private hell” would be if there really was such a thing. In that case, it’s more pleasing to me that it has that appearance. It seems so tidy. But there was so much to the story before the phrase “private hell.”

“The One About the Green Detective” is an odd story in that it’s almost a discussion of concretization of metaphor. It’s as though I set up a little detective agency to explain to my readership how I operate and I’m saying, “For this writer, these things that to others are jokes or metaphors exist in a real landscape and, here, we’ll take you to a few of them.” So it’s a very meta-generic or meta-fictional story within my own shelf of work. It’s also a very light story, not tremendously weighty, and the emotional material in it is nil. It’s a jaunt.

“Sleepy People” is a very important story to me, and one that’s hard for me to talk about because I don’t understand it completely, but I think I would argue that that story has even less to do with concretization of metaphor than any of the others that we’re talking about and than the majority of my fiction, including the novels. In fact, I’m not even sure what metaphor we’d be talking about, because it doesn’t seem to me that there is one. Perhaps there is, since it’s such a reflexive form of operation for me—

FK: People who sleepwalk through their lives.

JL: People who sleepwalk through their lives. Fair enough. I can honestly claim that it never crossed my mind at any point in the composition or even subsequent to the publication of that story that at some level I’d played my usual game—which is essentially like calling a metaphor’s bluff. “All right, what if people really sleepwalked through their lives.” Except the answer is “no, not, never,” in the case of “Sleepy People.” I was working in a deeply intuitive way in that story and it seems to me, in fact, a reply story to “The Happy Man.” Essentially “Sleepy People” is an attempt to compensate for the plights of the female characters in some of my stories—more than anyone, Maureen in “The Happy Man” is the prime example—who are treated unfairly by the texts. They’re made to be the witness and the buffer in a story of a man’s tortured relationship to his own psychic/emotional/symbolic/et cetera agenda. Which takes him out of the real world and poisons his potential relationship with the woman in question. I wanted to write from the point of view of a woman trying to love a man who’s caught up in some remote world of strife, some symbolic, cataclysmic terrain. The character, the sleepy man in “Sleepy People,” in a sense he’s off in his own private hell. And for once we’re made to see how pathetic a retreat that is, from the perspective of the female character.

What “The Happy Man” and “Sleepy People” have in common that’s even simpler is that they’re both, at some level, descriptions of the plight of someone living with an artist.

FK: Have you lived with an artist?

JL: Yeah. And I’ve been the artist lived with, of course. Anyway, “Sleepy People” is very much a lucid dream among my fictions.

FK: It’s very Kafkaesque, very dreamlike.

JL: I wrote it by a process of discovery that still feels to me unique and very desirable, and I’d like to write from that position again. I haven’t gone as deeply into that state again since writing it, but it seems a very important story to me, because it feels one hundred percent felt and intuited and, as I say, written by means of a completely open exploration into my own themes. There is very little mental ideological armature insisting itself upon that story. The opposite is a story like “Five Fucks,” which is all intellectual armature. It’s a series of brilliant games, completely propositional, completely intentional, completely a work of cleverness, where “Sleepy People” is completely a work of intuition and reception. I sat and I let that story feel its way through my fingertips onto the page. That may be a mystical description. I don’t usually describe my processes in very mystical terms, but I’ll risk it in this case.

FK: It was nominated for the Tiptree?

JL: It’s been completely ignored, as far as I know. You’re thinking of “Five Fucks.”

FK: No, I just read this in The New York Review of Science Fiction. “Sleepy People” was short-listed for the Tiptree.

JL: I’d love to be wrong, because I’m very fond of “Sleepy People.” But I debuted two stories in the collection The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye, “Five Fucks” and “Sleepy People,” and again and again people will tell me that “Five Fucks” is their favorite story in the book. And it was nominated for the Nebula. Whereas “Sleepy People” has been very quietly received.

FK: I’ll send you the page where I saw it. The comment by the Tiptree jury was that it was a very sympathetic portrait of a woman who has to care for this guy who’s just this passive sleeping figure.

JL: Well, I’m delighted. Actually, that’s what those two stories have in common: my sympathy with the female character. “Five Fucks” is one kind of method of getting closer to the women in my fiction. “Sleepy People” is a very different way of making that contact.

Otherwise, the stories are unrelated.

On the other hand, if you get me started on resonances between the stories in the collection I may never stop. Some of it is deliberate, of course: I picked the five stories from among the dozens I’d published, and I wrote the two originals to fill out the book. But there are also accidental relationships that now seem very exciting to me. I think the collection turned out to be almost as thematically unified as a novel.

“The Happy Man” became my calling card in the sf field, and it was a very strange, uncharacteristic, and in some ways unpleasant way to announce myself. Of course, some people still think I’ve never equalled that story. But one organizing principle visible to me in the book is that the stories that follow “The Happy Man”—and they were all written afterwards, almost exactly in the order they appear—each attempts to compensate for that story in some way. To correct for the impression it makes. A series of antidotes. “Vanilla Dunk” [1992] is my normative story, my attempt to show I can keep you just as enthralled with completely innocuous, uncontroversial material. “Light and the Sufferer” is an attempt to reach the same level of emotional intensity without the mechanistic, over-determined plotting. The polymorphous sexuality in “‘Forever,’ Said the Duck” is an apology for the homophobic reading “The Happy Man” allows—it’s Philadelphia to my Silence of the Lambs. Sort of. “Hardened Criminals” is a self-conscious attempt to displace “The Happy Man” with a family nightmare that’s even grimmer. I think it fails. And the other two, as I just said, are critiques of the men in my fiction, and rescue attempts for the women.

I also noticed that every story in the book contains some version of a finite artificial world, a potted world, a cartoon world, a prison or arena, carved out of the real world. So the collection taught me something about my own motifs and themes.

FK: Stories such as “The One About the Green Detective” and “Vanilla Dunk” have a fabulistic structure, but they conclude that there can be no moral drawn from the story. Amnesia Moon likewise reveals a deeply relativistic disinclination to privilege one interpretation over another. Is this a comment on the nature of storytelling, or is relativism your philosophical stance?

JL: By deep instinct that provokes the John Ford or Howard Hawks in me again, and I want to say [growling]: “What philosophical stance?” But I’m helplessly of my age and milieu in being, by intuition, by training, by context, a relativist, yes. I’m sure I am one; I’ve never even looked twice at it. I’m probably so deeply a relativist that the question is confusing to me, because I’ve never wavered long enough to glimpse any other position. It doesn’t even seem to me to be something I’m debating in my work. Just a ground I work from. The relativist dilemmas of my characters are just reflections of the underlying stance.

At the same time, I tend to write about the nature of storytelling. Certainly the temptation to resolve our ideological dilemmas in fiction reverberates in the real world, where we’re tempted—and frustrated always, I think—by those attempts. The questions of an ending, in Amnesia Moon—the book refuses to end, essentially, because it would be a betrayal of the premises. That book is powerfully influenced by Dick, and also by Cornell Woolrich, the mystery writer who specialized in amnesiac, paranoiac plots. Both of those writers are characterized by their disappointing endings. It seemed to me that to write a perfect Cornell Woolrich novel, you had to find a way not to write a bad last Cornell Woolrich chapter, and that at some level, that paranoiac, identity-shattering reality those writers draw you into is in some ways intrinsically betrayed, fundamentally betrayed, by any kind of ending at all.

So I wanted to write a book about that problem, among other things. The protagonist, Chaos, is desperately yearning for a coherent explanation, and most of the trouble he gets into is because he’s stumbled into situations where people have made a tradeoff. They’ve exchanged freedom and awareness for some kind of organizing principle or explanation. And it’s usually a bad deal. He considers various bad deals himself and then wanders off to a career of rejecting them forever. I hope. He may make another very bad turn right at the end, right after the last page of the book. I did my best to genuinely be unsure about the realities behind some of the illusions in that book, so when people ask me questions, I’m not playing my I’m-only-a-storyteller-don’t-ask-me-questions-I-can’t-answer role; I’m genuinely as puzzled as my readers about some of the turns in that book.

FK: A related question takes note of the fact that what organizing principles or explanations there are in your stories do tend to be handed down from above, so my next question was whether you consider yourself a political writer.

JL: Well, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that I’m a political writer, because I’m very confused about politics.

FK: I mean political in the anthropological sense of power structures, not in the specific sense of the modern American political system.

JL: I inherited a skepticism. My parents were war-resisters, and I grew up, I came to consciousness in the early 70s, during Watergate, essentially, so as with my relativism, it’s a ground I stand on, that powerful skepticism. But I’m equally resistant—and this is something I find myself bumping against as I’ve entered into a dialogue with people who respond to my work—there’s a tremendous susceptibility to conspiracy theories out there. Those always seem to me as naive about the way the world works as utopian fantasies. They’re equally attempts to understand the world according to one vast, organizing principle, which is a betrayal of the complex and ambiguous and, most importantly, the uncontrolled nature of our experiences. Conspiracy theorists believe that things feel chaotic and out-of-control only because someone bad is controlling them, which is one fiction among many fictions that people use to feel less out of control.

When you ask me if I’m political, what you’re really saying is, “Do you identify your critique of everyday life as a political one?” It seems to me a politics of consciousness and a politics of awareness are so lacking in most of what are considered to be political viewpoints, that I’m not sure I want to call it politics. Before I can begin to discuss the kinds of questions that people normally call “politics,” I would have to solve perceptual and mental and emotional confusions that seem to me to so surround every discourse that I certainly haven’t gotten anywhere close to “politics” yet.

FK: I was thinking of politics in that more general sense, just because you are so keenly aware of rhetoric. I thought that you might be interested in the linguistic aspect of politics.

JL: I’m very interested in the linguistic aspect of our struggle to control or understand our experience of everyday life. That’s a kind of politics, a root kind. It’s a politics of everyday life and a politics of perceptual coping that underlie what seem to me to be the falsely dichotomized arguments that are carried on instead of these deeper interrogations. That stratum of falsely dichotomized arguments seems to me to be “politics.”

FK: Well put. Okay, we don’t have to beat that one to death.

JL: (laughs)

FK: Oh no, the next one is a political question.

JL: No, go for it!

FK: The ecology of many of your stories seems almost naturalistic. Characters are divided into predator and prey.

JL: I’m interested because I’ve never thought about my... I often sort out my characters and I make distinctions, probably oversimple, like parents and children, and there are characters who I think are secretly children, like Chaos in Amnesia Moon. But predators and prey wouldn’t have occurred to me, and I want you to give me some examples to help me.

FK: “Light and the Sufferer,” it seems to me, describes the urban life of the junkies as a series of choices about whether to behave as predator or as prey. Gun, With Occasional Music describes what is tantamount to a police state, where the civilians are victimized by the Inquisitor’s Office. “The Happy Man,” again.

JL: Well, yeah, “Happy Man” has a predator in it, and that’s one of the reasons that story doesn’t feel to me as characteristic of my fiction. I’ve always felt that that story stood a little bit apart, and I think it’s the presence of the predator. The uncomplicated villain. Even some of the bad guys in Gun, With Occasional Music, who are pretty stock heavies, have their sympathetic moments and their frailties and occasionally have, if not a moral, at least an intellectual upper hand on the main character. [The villain Danny] Phoneblum is to [the protagonist] Conrad Metcalf as Kellogg is to Chaos, at the beginning of Amnesia Moon, in that they’re both sort of corrupt fathers whose lesson is “Don’t trust me. And grow up.” That doesn’t seem to me to be a predator profile. Both of those characters have discovered a willingness in themselves to manipulate others and play villainous roles in the world, but because the bad guys in most of my work seem to me conscious of their role-playing, they don’t strike me as predators, and that’s why the uncle in “The Happy Man” is the exception. And even he, in his human incarnation, in the mundane scenes, has some of that droll, role-playing aspect. It turns out his appetites make him a real predator, and that the role-playing is a lie. But most of my characters that pass for villains or predators are too self-conscious and ironic about it to seem really predational to me.

FK: Well, you’re right, and in fact now that I think about it there aren’t that many predators, but I feel as though a lot of your characters feel that they’re victims.

JL: They do. A lot of my characters feel that they’re victims, and I hope it’s not a weakness in my work. If it isn’t, it’s only because I usually end up complicating it, and, demonstrating the “victim’s” complicity with the “oppressing” apparatus or personalities, whether it’s a family or a society. Their complicity with the structure that makes them feel victimized. And I know I’m thinking about that better and harder in recent works.

I would say there’s also another typology of character in my work, and that’s the character who imagines that he is in command of something and is a victim instead. Delusions of control. Cale in Amnesia Moon imagines that he’s sort of a master webspinner of virtual realities, and he’s a serum in a bottle in a refrigerator. Philip in As She Climbed Across the Table imagines that he’s mastering Alice and mastering his world, and he’s not. He’s not in mortal danger, but he’s a helpless character. So I flip it both ways, I think. My victims who feel sorry for themselves are forced to learn how they’ve oppressed others or conspired in their own oppression, and my bluff and confident characters are exposed as really not controlling their own circumstances.

FK: You frequently deal with the theme of evolution: not showing us a grand Stapledonian sweep, but snapshots of evolution in progress, as in Gun, With Occasional Music, or characters who reinvent themselves, as in “Using It and Losing It” [1990], which I find a very interesting story, one that is concerned with speech and meaning.

JL: You have to read deep in my shelf to find “Using It and Losing It,” but I’m tickled that you’ve done that, because it was a major turning-point story for me. I’m not sure that I’d collect it, because the language seems to me precious. I was just discovering my tools, and I was infatuated with what I could carry off. Also, it’s in some ways a dangerously derivative story. But it was a real turning point for me in discovering my own methods and my own obsessions and finding a way to give them free play.

It’s a classic deflationary science-fiction story. The character thinks he’s making a breakthrough into a next level of consciousness, and in fact he’s diminished his ability to participate in consensual reality so radically that it doesn’t matter, that he’s immediately caught up in pathetic practical issues instead of enjoying his breakthrough. In that sense, “Walking the Moons” is a rewrite of “Using It and Losing It.” “Using It and Losing It” is directly indebted to a story which is a powerful influence on As She Climbed Across the Table as well, called “Stanley Toothbrush,” by Terry Carr. I name-check Stanley Toothbrush in As She Climbed Across the Table, probably the most obscure reference in the book. The narrator, Philip, calls Lack his own personal Stanley Toothbrush. My editor circled it and said, “What the hell is this?” And I said, “That’s for me. Just leave it there.”

“Stanley Toothbrush” is a Terry Carr story where the main character is a hapless lover who has a girlfriend and an office job. One morning he wakes up saying the word “shelf” to himself again and again and again until the word loses its meaning, and he hears a clatter in the back of his apartment and all the shelves have disappeared. It turns out that, for him, when he wears words out, which is exactly what my character in “Using It and Losing It” does, they disappear from the world. In a funny way, “Using It and Losing It” is a reverse of my normal method, because I usually take metaphors and concretize them. In fact what I did was re-metaphorize Terry Carr’s short story. I made it a mental story instead of a physical story. In my story, when you wear words out, you lose them from your vocabulary. And in Terry’s, when you wear words out, the objects disappear from the world. So it’s exactly the opposite of the process that I normally apply to other writers’ work.

The result, in “Stanley Toothbrush,” is that he’s removing items from the world, and glorying in this funny new talent he has, and then his girlfriend jokes that she’s busy, she can’t do anything with him that night because she’s got a date with a guy named Stanley Toothbrush. And she’s made him up. But our hero begins reciting that name, over and over again, and it just seems realer and realer and realer, until, what do you know, Stanley Toothbrush walks in and he’s this brilliant rival. The whole story, in a sense, is a real germ of inspiration for As She Climbed Across the Table, because Philip does participate in creating Lack. The speech he gives at the press conference humanizes Lack. He’s the one who really draws Lack out of the world of physics and out of the realm of scientific metaphors and starts talking about his desires and tastes in human terms, so he’s done the Stanley Toothbrush trip there. He’s made his imaginary rival into a real thing.
If you asked me to list the things that I write about, I don’t know how many I’d have to go through before I said “evolution.” But your perception is interesting me now. “Five Fucks” is also an evolutionary or de-evolutionary story. And that snapshot effect is a method I use, skipping the transitions. That description in your question, of the snapshot trick, in a sense is a description of a method that I employ at the mechanical level of my writing. I had a breakthrough at some point, figuring out that I didn’t need to show transitions, and that, at many levels of the text, the proper thing to do is just skip to the next thing that interests me. That was one of the most important technical lessons for me.

FK: How do you invent character names?

JL: Actually, it’s a hobby. It’s my only writerly activity that’s radically inefficient. I create character names when I’m stuck or bored, or just to amuse myself. I have thousands of them. A big fat manila folder full, more than I could ever invent characters for. I plunder those lists. Of course, a lot of them are bad and silly and wouldn’t work. But sometimes there’ll be one that seems silly and wrong until I’ve invented a story or got a notion for a story, and suddenly it jumps off the list and fits that character. There are instances in my fiction when you see me playfully using up some of those names, like in “‘Forever,’ Said the Duck,” where I thought, “Let’s see how many of my most ludicrous names I can get into one story.” Of course, the most important character names tend not to come from those lists, tend to come from some slightly deeper, less arbitrary place. My naming has changed. In the book I’m just finishing, the names are more realistic—I wouldn’t call them realistic—but they’re more realistic.

FK: Names like Phoneblum and Teleprompter [in Gun, With Occasional Music] are a little hard to believe, but not only is it the future, it’s possibly not even our world.

JL: Right. Well, that’s it. And it’s a way to point at the artificial nature of fiction, and not one that I invented. Certainly Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon beat me to that, easily. Sometimes it’s a way of making an ironic point, although that’s really dangerous if names are too meaningful. But Phoneblum and Teleprompter are both in a book about a world of radically diminished communication, and they’re both named for communication devices. Also, communication has been decanted out of the natural into the... it’s been technologized, in that world, so they were both named for technological means of communication. That was an intuitive move.

Other names are just to make me laugh, or just to make the characters seem special and to help create the atmosphere of oddity. Unrealistically strange character names are an easy way to make sure the reader feels, at the deepest level, they’re entering a propositional space where they have to suspend some of their reading protocols and suspend disbelief and make leaps. It makes people ready for leaps.

FK: It can also, as you hinted, make the fiction seem allegorical, but sometimes the allegory seems to work at cross purposes. You do run the danger of having the reader stall for a moment, trying to puzzle it out.

JL: Yeah. I’m not sure I’m always as careful about that danger as I could be. Sometimes I’ll use a name that suggests a lot, and it means zero. I think that at some level I cue the degree of artificialness of the world that you’re in by the degree of artificialness of the names. The book I’ve just written [Girl in Landscape] wants to feel more like the real world, and the names cue that. The story I’ve written that takes place the least in the world as we know it, of course, is “‘Forever,’ said the Duck,” and that’s cued by the consummately artificial names. They’re the first clue that we’re not even in a spatial reality, that we’re just listening to voices babble. Then there are other qualities in the worlds that I’m creating that can be cued by the kinds of names, not just whether they’re strange or not, but in what way they’re strange. If they feel more allegorical, they may point more towards an allegorical space. If they feel more droll, then it can help people lighten up and start to play with the language. The names in “Five Fucks,” for example, help establish it as a story that exists in the realm of game-playing.

FK: For example, the policeman’s name, that changes scene to scene from “Pupkiss” to “McPupkiss” to “Pupkinstein.”

JL: The mutations of the policeman’s name, even if you just pulled those out of the story, you’d say, “This is a story that’s a meta-fictional game.”

FK: Your fiction is very playful and, as I’m not the first to notice, is also very funny. I thought that As She Climbed was laugh-out-loud funny. Things like when Professor Soft, after hearing the deconstructionist speak, just throws up, or bringing in a blind man to help with the problem of the observer in physics, are really funny. Do you laugh at your own writing?

JL: Oh, definitely. I try to make myself laugh. That’s probably not surprising, in a book like As She Climbed Across the Table, but I’m also writing to make myself laugh in stories where the effect is much less humorous. I’m thinking about the new novel that I’ve just written, which is probably the least profitable thing for me to be bringing up, since you haven’t read it yet. It’s a grave book, in many ways. Full of tortured emotions. But there’s a lot of that book that was conceived at some level to amuse me. A way to keep yourself in the game, and excited, is to make yourself laugh. A way to make the writing process less precious and less solemn and more fluid is to make sure you’re enjoying yourself.

FK: Did you sit down and read all of DeLillo before you wrote As She Climbed Across the Table?

JL: Yes, DeLillo is a huge influence. It’s interesting, the history of my reading of DeLillo. I wasn’t sure I liked him when I first read him. I heard the name, I don’t know why, and I checked out End Zone when I was in college. I was the first person to check it out of the Bennington Library in, like, seven years. His reputation was as a real writer’s writer at that point, and I don’t know why I got interested. I read about half of End Zone and wasn’t sure I liked it. It seemed chilly to me. The formal and chilly qualities of his sentences and his scene construction at first turned me off. Then, a couple of years later, I came across a paperback of Ratner’s Star, and read that with enormous interest, and I did read it all the way through. But I still wasn’t sold on DeLillo. I could tell he was an awesome writer in some ways, I was intimidated by him, but I wasn’t relating to everything in that book.

Then another two years go by, and just after conceiving the notion of As She Climbed Across the Table, I read White Noise, and it all came together for me. Suddenly he was a crucial writer for me, an unavoidable writer, one whom I was going to have to digest and incorporate. Then I read everything else. I read the rest of his works as well as some criticism, some secondary sources, during the year and a half of the first composition of As She Climbed Across the Table.

Having said all that, there are other really strong influences, on that book. Lem, and Lewis Carroll, and John Barth, and Malcolm Bradbury, and Terry Carr [laughs], and even Philip K. Dick are all influences. The voice is an amalgam of the voice Barth used in End of the Road, and White Noise. No one ever spots the Barth, partly because he’s out of fashion, and even when he’s read, it doesn’t tend to be that book but the later, bigger books; and DeLillo is very much in fashion. But End of the Road is as strong an influence as anything, and the love triangle comes very directly out of that book. Philip’s frustrations at having a rival who is elusive are exactly the problems of, not the narrator, but the other man in the love triangle. End of the Road is essentially a book written from the perspective of the Lack character, a formless, teasing, unstable and elusive lover who breaks up an established couple. So I wrote from another leg of that triangle. And, you guessed it, I concretized Barth’s metaphor!

FK: The ending, in which Philip climbs through Lack and finds alternate universes, reminded me of the ending of White Noise, when Jack Gladney rehearses in his mind various different behaviors he can act out, although I thought that the dialogue throughout was very Ratner’s Star. I assume that Professor Soft is a nod to DeLillo’s scientist character named Softly.

JL: Yes, it’s a nod to Softly, absolutely. The science comes out of Ratner’s Star, and the campus comes out of White Noise and other campus novels. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man was a very strong influence on the party scenes and the social atmosphere of the campus.

FK: Since we’re talking about influential voices, As She Climbed and other stories like, again, “Using It and Losing It,” are concerned with problems of meaning, and understanding the world, and silence. I thought that, not only do you mention Beckett in As She Climbed, but it seemed to me very Beckettian, and I’m wondering what you think about Absurdism.

JL: Well, I like Beckett. He’s one of those writers who seems almost too obvious to me. When I talk about ground I stand on—encountering Beckett, which I think for people a generation before was very destabilizing and very challenging, for me was very confirming. It was a very direct and confirming encounter for me. I saw what Beckett was up to, and I thought, “Yup. This makes sense.” I didn’t happen to get as deeply involved with Beckett as I did with, say, Kafka or Borges, to take people who are sort of in the same ballpark as icons of alienation and modernity, in that way. But I appreciated everything I understood about Beckett. There were particular works that I liked a lot. A play called Krapp’s Last Tape. I didn’t ever read the novels, the trilogy, and I know to a lot of people that’s the great work. I really probably ought to read those. I read a short science-fiction novel, about disembodied voices lying in storage and talking to each other through the coffins, called The Lost Ones. It’s like Beckett’s Ubik. I think there are things in Beckett that await my discovery, but everything I know, I like and respond to. But what I suspect are the essential ingredients in Beckett I happened to come to by means of Dick, or Lewis Carroll, or Borges, or Kafka first, and so when I got to Beckett I just nodded and said, “Yup, that’s fine, that’s good. It fits right in there.” He didn’t happen to be the transforming experience for me. Other people were.

FK: That’s true. Those other writers are also concerned with problems of meaning and meaninglessness.

JL: Yeah. The funny thing is, I read Sartre’s novels when I was very young. God knows why. It’s almost as though I surrounded Beckett before I got to him. I was very well prepared, with one thing and another.

FK: None of that surprises me. Moving from absurdist silence to noise: What music do you listen to? Do you listen to music when you write?

JL: I do, constantly, yeah. I listen to a lot of different music. A lot of what I guess is called alternative rock, or the precursors to alternative rock. And jazz and funk and R&B and doo-wop and singer-songwriters. Lots and lots and lots of popular music. It’s easier to list the things I don’t listen to. I don’t listen to heavy metal and I don’t listen to fusion and I don’t listen to classical music. I’m only just beginning to dabble in some world musics, some Third World musics. But in American popular music I listen to more forms and to more musicians than not.

FK: For the record, do you want to mention what you’ve contributed to music? You used to be a lyricist.

JL: Oh, yeah. Well, no.

FK: You don’t want to get into that?

JL: I don’t. It’s silly. I’ve written lyrics for a few friends’ rock bands, and I still do, every once in a while, and they’re quietly being played, and in a couple of places recorded, but it doesn’t seem to me a part of my—

FK: Oh, but it’s cool.

JL: It’s cool, yeah. But I’ll tell you what’s more interesting, what’s more germane to this discussion: there’s music that becomes very, very important, thematically loaded and resonant with things I write. Amnesia Moon has a soundtrack. It’s an album by a band called My Dad Is Dead, called The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get. Every song on that record has a chapter. It’s the soundtrack to the book. The book I’m finishing now has a theme song, a song by John Cale called “Dying on the Vine.” I can enunciate to some extent why that’s the theme song of the book, and also some of it’s just mysterious in that emotional way that musical connections can be. I get to a point where the relationship can be so strong that I’ll use the song to help get back into the space of the book when I’m revising. All of this is simply to say that music is very, very important to me. I love film and I love painting and I love the arts. I’m passionate about the arts, but music is particularly—really reaches me very deeply, and if I was a talented musician I might not be a writer at all. I would be very grateful just to be able to sing like Al Green. I would just do that for people and be very, very fulfilled.

FK: I’ll give you one last question, and this is one you can interpret any way you like, personally or universally. Where do you think the narrative impulse comes from?

JL: Well, I’m about to go sit on a panel about dreams, and if it goes in the direction I’d like it to, I’ll talk about that. Because I think the narrative impulse comes out of the most fundamental functions of consciousness. Which is to say, the dreaming brain attempting to make sense of the dream—the dream in this case being the waking dream. Everything is so much more overwhelming and chaotic and discombobulated and paradoxical than anyone can cope with, and the brain is frantically, as I see it, sorting and organizing and narrativizing, just to be able to cross the room, just to be able to carry on this interview, and that is the narrative process. We’re living, writing, the novels of our lives all the time, and the novels of our relationships, and the novels of our family lives, and the novels of our friendships, and the novels of our own relation to objects and architecture and capitalism. That is narration. We’re all helplessly narrating in order to proceed.

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