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Lethem, Jonathan

Entry updated 9 January 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1964-    ) US author, married 1987-1998 to Shelley Jackson, 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 pieces 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 only indirectly, though at times with considerable intensity, reflected this long-term interest. A more direct influence, which markedly distinguished him from his close contemporaries, was Stanisław Lem, as much later articulated in a long essay, "My Year of Reading Lemmishly" (10 February 2022 London Review of Books). 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, with later stories assembled as Men and Cartoons: Stories (coll 2004) and Lucky Alan and Other Stories (coll 2015).

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 Oakland/San Francisco; 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" (see 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.

Amnesia Moon (1995) broadens, though exorbitance makes it less pressing, the first novel's vision, through sight of an America driven into a state of Amnesia by a tumult of Disasters; across a Colour-Coded Archipelago of Polders [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] that Parody Oz and the California of Philip K Dick, the protagonist treks in search of a "wizard" who will restory the story of the land; but does not find that story. A Black Hole – if it is not in fact an AI embedded in an arcane version of vacuum – creates something of an Alternate Universe in As She Climbed Across the Table (1997). Lethem's final sf story for several years, Girl in Landscape (1998), a Western which obliterates the colouring of Amnesia Moon in a tale of the colonization (see 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 gives 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, including J G Ballard and Thomas Berger, 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. The gambler protagonist of A Gambler's Anatomy (2016; vt The Blot 2017) has the power of Telepathy, which does him no good; the nonfiction The Blot: A Supplement (2016 chap) with Lawrence A Rickels takes this novel as a take-off point for discussions of Philip K Dick, the modern Cinema, and other topics. The Feral Detective (2018) – no direct homage to Roberto Bolaño, whom Lethem explicitly admires, seems intended – carries its detective westwards into a teemingly chthonic version of the West, perhaps a seedbed for some much-needed apocalyptic cleansing. The Arrest (2020) combines noir snapshots of a Near Future Dystopian America after the eponymous Disaster with a gonzo Satire-with-love on pre-Arrest popular culture; the setting, in rural Midcoast Maine, playfully homages Stephen King without quite going there.

Beyond his early Locus Award recognition, and a 1997 World Fantasy Award for the collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, Lethem has won no genre awards; he received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005. [JC]

Jonathan Allen Lethem

born New York: 19 February 1964


collections and stories

nonfiction (selected)

works as editor (selected)


previous versions of this entry

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