Ed here: Here's Jonathan Lethem being interviewed on Verge.
Jonathan Lethem makes no secret of his influences. His first published novel,Gun, with Occasional Music, riffed on the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. He’s written an academic novel in the style of Don Delillo (As She Climbed Across the Table), and crossbred E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with John Ford’s The Searchers, transporting the Western to an alien world in Girl in Landscape. He’s even written about “the ecstasy of influence,” reminding us that no creative act arrives ex nihilo — it’s all, like his own work, a product of influences and appropriations, conscious and not.His latest novel, Dissident Gardens, follows three generations of utopian seekers whose American dreams are thwarted by reality. They’re activists to varying degrees and, as Lethem says, fundamentally uncomfortable in everyday life. Their stories trace a particular vein running through the country’s history, from the Communist cells of the 1930s to the Occupy movement of today.
By telephone from his home in California, Lethem discussed the porous borders between science fiction and “the mainstream,” how contemporary fiction acknowledges (or doesn’t) technology and capitalism, and wanting to write about his grandmother’s sex life.
Last time we talked, we discussed Philip K. Dick, a science fiction writer who had a great influence on you — not just as a writer, but as a person. You've mentioned early in your career wanting to align yourself with genre writers, who you called “those exiles within their own culture.” As someone well into your career, with more than a half-dozen published novels, what's your relationship to science fiction today?
That's a really great and really complicated, wide-open opportunity there. There are so many different angles on what it even means to speak with confidence about a science fiction genre. It's a bit like an oasis in the desert that looks coherent from a distance, and when you get closer is not just a mirage — there's something there — but some of it was a mirage. And certainly, there's a lot of sand between the trees and the little trickle of water that looked like one coherent thing in the distance.
By the way, every time I laugh, you should insert [laughter], okay? I think it just makes things much better, because I'm constantly being taken for a pompous asshole when I was just trying to be funny about something. Something about my tone requires a tremendous number of [laughter], okay?
Do you want me to —
Yeah, that's all on the record. You can say that whole thing.
I don't feel that way about everything. The “crime” section contains those hard-boiled detective stories, but it also contains this other genre, which is about the criminal protagonist. They’re the kinds of books you encounter in Charles Willeford and Donald Westlake. They may both be read by people who dig mysteries, but they're different things. And they're different things yet again from the well-ordered, English-style Agatha Christie pursuit-by-armchair-detective, sequence-of-likely-suspects-leading-to-apprehending-the-culprit-by-way-of-organized-clues that makes you go “Aha!” and “Oh ho!” That's another genre.
So, speaking as a novelist, I feel great confidence that the hard-boiled detective story is a genre. When I read Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett or Ross Macdonald or the very early James Ellroy, I see the pattern. When I wrote Gun, with Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn, those were genre novels: the hard-boiled detective story gave me a reliable template.
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