(1964- ) US writer who began publishing work of sf interest with "The Unexpurgated Zap Gun: A Report" for The Philip K Dick Society Newsletter #15 in 1987, the first of several piece on Philip K Dick whose natural – though not inevitable – culmination was his editing for the Library of America three Dick omnibuses, beginning with Philip K Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s (omni 2007) [for full details see Checklist]; Lethem's own fiction, with the exception of his first novel, has not very much, except in the broadest terms, reflected this long-term interest. He began publishing sf in his own right with "The Cave Beneath the Falls" (January/February 1989 Aboriginal), and has published at least thirty-five stories since, several of them sf, the best known of them probably being "The Happy Man" (February 1991 Asimov's), which was included in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (coll 1996). Other short material includes some exercises in apocalyptic post-modernism assembled in Kafka Americana (coll 1999) with Carter Scholz, and later stories assembled as Men and Cartoons: Stories (coll 2004).
Lethem's first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music (1994), which won a Locus Award for best first novel, meticulously rehabilitates not only the ambience of Philip K Dick's California, but also the noir narrative voice that Cyberpunk writers notoriously acquired from writers like Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), not only through the exactitude of the stylistic miming involved, but also because the setting, characters and overall ambience of the tale directly homage the earlier masters. The setting for Gun, With Occasional Music is a cloistral, dead urban Near Future; and the main character (who narrates) is a private eye in a world which has been reduced – rather than liberated – by the recursiveness of a culture near the end of its tether. In the terrified, shrinking world of this novel, it is socially unacceptable to ask personal questions; Drugs like Forgettol continue to reduce the mental spaces available to humanity; a weary dictatorial police state gives thugs in its employ the right to punish citizens by reducing their "karmic points" until they have none, and are sent to deepfreeze; animals and babies, transmogrified by "evolution therapy" (> Genetic Engineering), walk and talk. The nightmarishness of the book derives, perhaps, from a sense that Lethem has – as accurately as Steve Erickson – captured the surreal underlying bleakness of any future Hammett or Chandler might actually have imagined. Lethem's next novel, Amnesia Moon (1995), broadens, though exorbitance it makes less pressing, this vision of an America driven into a state of Amnesia by a tumult of Disasters; across colour-coded Polders [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] that Parody Oz, the protagonist treks in search of a "wizard" who will restory the story of the land; but does not find that story. Lethem's final sf story (as such), Girl in Landscape (1998), obliterates the colouring of Amnesia Moon in a tale of the colonization (> Colonization of Other Worlds) of the Planet of the Archbuilders, seen through the eyes of a girl coming into womanhood soon after she lands. Her refusal to take the numbing Drugs prescribed for humans give her Psi Powers such as Telepathy; and her ambivalent intimacy with the natives of this world point toward the underlying story Lethem is channelling in this book: that of The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford (1894-1973), a film Lethem examined in "Defending The Searchers" (Winter 2000/2001 Tin House), an essay assembled with other nonfiction material (some of sf interest) in The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays (coll 2005). A larger assembly of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc (coll 2011), contains some studies of sf figures and other material of interest.
Lethem's subsequent career has moved beyond sf as a single driver of any narrative, though – like his near contemporary, Michael Chabon – his work is a central demonstration of the use of heavily energized Equipoise, adjoining and juxtaposing, in his case, a wide variety types, from the detective story to the Bildungsroman to sf and fantasy and horror to the Superhero tale as found in American Comics, all of these "ingredients" being engined into one compact in the case of The Fortress of Solitude (2003), which also homages the Myth of Origin [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] and the Great American Novel game. This urgent mixture of modes is continued in Chronic City (2009), set in an Alternate World or possibly Virtual Reality version of New York where fabulous beasts and metaphysical pathos (fog permanently enshrouds Wall Street) underline the final point of the tale (which is also, perhaps, the final point of any twenty-first-century exercise in Equipoise): the need to turn reality into a story that works for now. At the heart of the protagonists' quest for a reality-fixing tale to live by, a "chaldron" – an archaic form of the word cauldron – is discovered, which Basilisk-like fastens their attention to the Transcendence it seems to promise, leading them into damnation. Beyond his early Locus Award recognition, Lethem has won no sf awards; he won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005. [JC]
Jonathan Allen Lethem
born New York: 19 February 1964
collections and stories
- The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996) [coll: hb/Alexander Munn]
- Kafka Americana (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 1999) with Carter Scholz [coll: hb/Perry Hoberman]
- K is for Fake (Brooklyn, New York: McSweeney's Quarterly, 2000) [story: chap: hb/William Amato]
- This Shape We're In (Brooklyn, New York: McSweeney's Books, 2001) [story: chap: hb/Chester Brown]
- Men and Cartoons: Stories (New York: Doubleday, 2004) [coll: hb/Marc Cozza and Rebecca Cohen]
- Omega: The Unknown (New York: Marvel, 2008) with Karl Rusnak and Farel Dalrymple [graph: assembling the first ten issues of the Comic: hb/Farel Dalrymple]
works as editor (selected)
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