BooksJonathan Lethem on computer dogs and secret spaces
Inside the speakeasy Brazenhead book store, author Jonathan Lethem talks Occupy's nesting paradoxes, Gibson’s unevenly distributed future, appropriation and more.
“That essential, almost kind of masturbatory, craven, secret space. Just me and the text, probably no one else on Earth is thinking about this book at the moment I’m reading it. That seems, to me, kind of the ideal place.”
Jonathan Lethem is saying this in the back room of Brazenhead Books, a small, expertly curated bookstore in the shape of a Manhattan apartment. It's empty. Of people, at least. The tiny converted walk-up is crowded with first editions, pulp fiction paperbacks, out-of-print treasures and lit cult ephemera collected over thirty years by Michael Seidenberg, its proprietor, who buzzes you up, if you know the address. The windows are covered with postcards and posters, barricaded by bookshelves. In place of a cash register, there’s a table-top bar, stocked by the patrons on busy days. Taped to the table, there's a photo of Seidenberg's three-legged pit bull.
This place is especially essential to Lethem, whom Seidenberg hired when he was a teenager and Brazenhead was still in Brooklyn. The young bookworm was solely paid in literature. In the 90’s, Seidenberg moved his operation to Manhattan where it has peacefully resided until now. The landlord wants them out by the end of July and the veteran bookseller seems resigned to that fate. “I just want to live a nice life without hurting anyone and there’s nothing really to be done,” Seidenberg tells me a few days later, holding court with a drink and a smoke in hand at one of the social nights he hosts three times a week. “Right now, I’m just shaking the bushes and seeing what the future brings,” he says, indicating that by no means does he consider his venture to be over.
I went to Lethem with the intention of talking about his newest collection of short stories, Lucky Alan, but the conversation swerved to influence and formative experience, the way that conversations with Lethem invariably do. As a writer, he’s been historically unafraid of pointing out the artists he’s inspired by, has riffed on or stolen from. (He defended appropriation as a technique in his essay, The Ecstasy of Influence, a treatise that itself was comprised entirely of other people’s words.) But Lethem also wanted to talk about a different kind of influence, of physical places and the communities they hold, about the commons, how "we don’t live in the future; we live in the present and it’s just a jumbled up mess of pasts" and how a street protest can be like a good bookstore.
Speakeasy bookstore, Manhattan
Brazenhead Books is the brainchild of Michael Seidenberg, a New York native. Founded in the late 1970's, the store first opened on Atlantic Avenue before the rent went up and Seidenberg decided to move to a storefront on 84th street in Manhattan.
After deciding to close that location, Seidenberg sold books on the street before renovating an apartment and turning Brazenhead into a more focused, salon environment as it has been ever since. About his time selling on the street, Seidenberg told the New Yorker, “Once, a couple stopped and the man asked his girlfriend, ‘Do you want a book?’ She said, ‘No, I already have a book.’ ”
Occult relationships, Occupy Wall Street and why Netflix recommendations suck
Hopes&Fears: I don’t have a first question. Do you have a first answer?
Jonathan Lethem: One reason I thought that it make sense to pull you in here is to underline how this is the answer to what I do. Pointing to other peoples’ work. Pointing to stuff that interests me.
When people want to talk to me about my work, I’m more and more inclined to almost just consent to whatever they believe they see in it because I suspect they’ll probably be right. At a certain point, it’s been delivered out of me, and it’s in their possession.
More and more, I think pointing to other things is the deeper answer. And then, listening.
H&F: Do you like talking about other people's work?
JL: Absolutely. [It's] emblematic of the way I’m entwined with other peoples’ writing. In a way, that’s the vehicle.
There’s something very pure about reading. Just you and a book. Isolation. I think it’s why I’ve tended to read so many lost books, or out-of-print books, or out-of-fashion authors. Just to reinstate the privacy between me and the reading. When I was a kid, I didn’t read book reviews. I didn’t know what was fashionable. I was just delving around used bookstores and finding things that interested me.
A New York native, he is the author of seven novels including Dissident Gardens, Chronic City and Motherless Brooklyn, which was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Salon Book Award, and the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger.
He has also written three short story collections, a novella and a collection of essays. His latest work is Lucky Alan.
As a journalist and essayist, his writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and McSweeney's among others.
H&F: You didn’t read reviews at all as a kid?
JL: I wouldn’t have really known how to. But I was reading a lot of fiction before I was hip to the idea that I could anticipate what was going on. I was a million miles from any relationship like that. Literally, it was just finding books and someone saying "You’ve gotta read this." Michael was one of the key people.
I still prefer that more occult kind of relationship with fiction. Of course, then it translates outward to me becoming a kind of bogus authority, [saying] "Oh you should read this or let me write an introduction to that or write an essay that helps rediscover this lost author." So I end up shining a flashlight around into my own fun secret cavern. But as an experience as a reader, I’m most nourished by the really occult kind of space.
I also like living writers, but I like reading them when they’re secret. I just got sent the new Rupert Thomson. He’s so undervalued. He’s such a pure novelist. He explores what interests him in the way that I most admire. He’s not trying to demonstrate its relevancy or extend his own argument. Each novel is burned into... etched into reality by his curiosity.
Right now, I’m just shaking the bushes and seeing what the future brings.
— Michael Seidenberg
H&F: You’ve talked about growing up in a family that attended protests a lot. You've said, "When you’re in the center of the demonstrations, you believe." I feel like this extends to real world cultural experiences like being in a good bookstore or a movie theater etc. When you attend a protest, you’re far more connected and invested in the cause and the space than if tweet a hashtag. Likewise, when you're in a great library it makes you feel the importance of books, or if you're in a movie theater with a perfect tech setup, you experience the film on a different scale than if you watched it on your phone, for instance.
JL: You’re making a comparison I’m very interested in, which is the rivalrousness between virtual spaces and their ambition to acquire some of the charisma of the spatial commitments of being. In a less developed version of this inquiry, people are constantly asking me, "So, do you use a kindle? What do you think of a virtual book?"
For me, personally, I can’t break out of this spatial physical relationship. It’s not luddite to exalt this machine. [He holds up a book.] It’s a technological object, right? In a pure sense, it’s not an anti-technological gesture to be like, I dig this technology. We’re still talking about the individual object, but this is also a technology, this room of books. I grew up with a very powerful relationship to the idea of a room of shelves, the library, the study, the collection. And I started building my own version of that before I even understood why I had such an appetite, a hunger to dwell on that kind of space. It was urgent for me, and I still do it.
I not only live in a series of homes and an office that are, essentially, book-lined, but I’m always culling, resolving, fussing over them, trying to figure out the right organization...
If you’re in a room with books, you part-read them a lot. You use them in ways that it’s not binary. It’s not either read or unread. They are using each other in a sense, they’re activating each other. It’s a somatic technology. A book-lined room is as much a spatial body as an individual book. You enter into it. It's an exoskeleton.
That relates to the difference between going online and registering your belief, kind of a virtual demonstration or vote. And the spatiality, the somatic experience of being inside of that demonstration. I’ve been in marches where you’re embodying, literally, desire for something—understanding, alteration, change, justice—or you didn’t understand what you were there for. But it was still an embodiment. It could be contradictory, but you were inside. The protest march is another kind of cultural exoskeleton.
I became really fascinated by the nesting paradoxes that went along with the Occupy movement on these terms. People poured out of their homes and into physical space. And what did that do? What did it create in themselves and in the culture? It immediately demanded a reply in real space. The virtual experience or the virtual itch—whatever it was that overcame so many people—suddenly, it turned into a physical situation, in New York. When Zuccotti Park was occupied, the physical fact of it—that it was a thing to go to—almost immediately became something that overtook the ideological or conceptual aspects of the desire and trumped them. Because the people in Zuccotti Park—a lot of them—needed taking care of, or they needed to take care of one another. So suddenly, the somatic life overwrote the entire conceptual gesture.
It’s interesting what happened when dogs guarded the campfire and humans were free to talk more or sing.
So who knows, if we’ve delegated some stuff to these computer dogs maybe we’ll actually evolve differently.
— Jonathan Lethem
H&F: Let's talk about the relationship between what happens when you protest and something like click-tavism, how one seems to change things, and the other doesn’t seem to change anything. And I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to about it who have said, "Yeah I’ll go on Netflix and try to find a movie and spend an hour and a half looking for a movie, and just be like, fuck it, and move on or fall asleep." When you have this immense menu of shit, you never pick one and just sit down with it, focus on it, flesh it out.
JL: It speaks to something that libraries and bookstores do—and also a great magazine or a gallery or a marvelous salon, where someone is a kind of cultural arbiter—curation. Curation is an unbelievably powerful cultural thing. What the internet throws into visibility is the chaos of an un-curated plenitude. And then you get these unsatisfactory recommendation-bots that are saying, "If you like this, you might like this." And yet, they’re not right enough or human enough to matter to you the way someone saying, "No, no, do this next." It just has a different intensity.
H&F: There seems to be this anxiety of memory going on. I'll give you three examples: Studies have found that people who use e-readers read more than people who read books, but they retain less. Second, you have the idea of the smartphone and prosthetic knowledge and people saying, "I don’t need to remember that, I’ll just look it up if I need it."
JL: Outsourcing memory tasks.
H&F: And a third, maybe even larger thing, a VP at Google, one of the first architects of the internet, recently stepped down to devote himself entirely to the possibility of a digital dark age on the horizon. He’s worried about everyone uploading everything to the "cloud" and all of the backups going to this cloud that isn’t that sustainable.
JL: The overwriting of the digital archive ...
H&F: But I think within that, there might also be a thing in your world, as far as talking about the occult and forgotten authors. Is there a way that could also serve for us to forget and rediscover down the road?
JL: It’s interesting what happens when you can outsource. It’s interesting what happened when dogs guarded the campfire and humans were free to talk more or sing. So who knows, if we’ve delegated some stuff to these computer dogs maybe we’ll actually evolve differently.
You could see the book as being a kind of proto-internet in that way, that people used to walk around with lots more stuff in their heads before they could build a library to hold it instead. Some people, certain people. What do I think about the risks—the study is striking, obviously, because when I talk about books as being a somatic technology, having a body-interactive advantage, well it sounds like they are sort of proving that, right? But on the other hand, it’s very nice to even just hear that people are admitting that reading is what it's all about.
I just always think the real results tend to be more impure and mingled. They never conform to either the rhetoric of transformation or doom. It’s usually something much more homely and mixed up.
The persistence of old forms... that defines what a present is. Present is not made up of only things that are contemporary to that moment. It’s made up of unbelievably heaped-up piles of older things that are just persisting and embedded in the experience. The "unevenly distributed future" is William Gibson’s term. And we don’t live in the future; we live in the present, and it’s just a jumbled up mess of pasts.
The persistence of old forms... that defines what a present is. Present is not made up of only things that are contemporary to that moment. It’s made up of unbelievably heaped-up piles of older things that are just persisting and embedded in the experience.
— Jonathan Lethem
H&F: You've said, "the premise of American community fails everywhere because it lies about class." Do you think cultural communities are failing to recognize class?
JL: I guess when I said that quote, which sounds pretty dire, I was thinking about larger political societal assertions of community. Right underneath them is ... [what] I’ll say I take more solace in as a practical matter. And that is in subcultural affiliations, just beneath the level of the larger civic assertions of commonality, there exist things like the kinds of people that come here, or a science fiction convention where people strip themselves of their class affiliation in subservience—however comical and easy to mock—they’ve made their appetite for some kind of common source their only definition.
For the weekend they’re at the Marriott dressed as Klingons, there is no class. So when impersonating subcultural affiliation, you get a glimpse—now these tend to be obviously unstable—they’re not only not solutions, they’re not even permanent sensations of a utopian egalitarian possibility—they’re glimpses. The anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey talks about Temporary Autonomous Zones, and I’ve written about this. It’s always a notion that’s really sparked my understanding of what I was so responsive to in subculture and subcultural behavior.
If you examine the difference between the rhetoric and reality of the internet, most everything has been monetized and colonized. My students are cynical when they hear the Stewart Brand, Bay Area, late 80s version of what the internet was supposed to be like, they’re sorry it’s like cable TV to me. But one of the repositories where you can still detect that stuff, no matter how naive or open to other critiques they may be, what you have in Wikipedia or a fan fiction site is a place where there’s still a commons view of this activity.
Leonard Nimoy's poetry, beating yourself and greatest fears
H&F: We were talking about Don DeLillo earlier. He’s always worried about the way the words look on the page, and it seems like a modern instinct that more people have and don’t even realize it. He comes from ad copywriting, and that is apparent. Do you ever feel like that, do you go sentence by sentence. Or do you worry about the full page itself?
JL: I’m pretty engaged with the sentence. I think of the paragraph as a unit; I identify with that the most. [DeLillo's] last few books have been conspicuously spare, and I’ve more recently been working in a pretty fulsome style in my last couple of novels. But it doesn’t mean I’m the enemy of a spare style, or I don’t think I want to reach for one maybe the very next minute. It’s just the book has its demands, and its voice, and I’m trying to fulfill it on its terms. In the stories, you can see some other choices being made, and the book I’m working on now is a bit more stripped. Sometimes there are things I want to say that just actually demand some kind of emotional, informational thing I want to do, that’s gonna kind of fuck the sentence up, actually. It’s gonna make it too much, overload it, and I’ll vote in favor of the emotion or information at times.
A theme of Dissident Gardens is lives wrecked, civilizations wrecked by certain kinds of appetite, and certain kinds of information that are both simultaneously unbearable. So the sentences themselves embody that wrecked-ness to a degree. It would be impossible for that subject matter to have been, for me anyway, in body and a more disciplined, more graceful kind of language, than the one I landed on, or the several I landed on.
But I like it when I’m in a place where I can play at the level of the sentence and win a lot. Obviously short stories are a nice chance for that, and the novel I’m writing now is a better vehicle for that. But I guess I’ll continue to see that as a matter of each book, each project having its own kind of formal necessities.
H&F: : On the subject of short stories, I’ve read you say you really love the short story format, and you’re cool if some people have to be, like, he’s a great novelist and writes pretty good stories.
JL: It’s more of a joke, but yeah, it seems like you don’t get to be both, and that’s cool, it’s fine. With Updike or a couple of key exceptions, the world mostly it’s just a kind of characteristic impatience, like how nobody really wants to look at Bob Dylan’s paintings, or read Leonard Nimoy’s poetry. I’m a novelist, so some segment is like, ‘what are you doing with these short stories, don’t come at me with them.’ There are worse fates. I can publish them anyway, no one can tell me not to.
H&F: I might be wrong, but it seems to me like short form in literature isn’t consumed as much, whereas we live in a culture that seems to revere getting everything faster in more quickly-consumed forms.
JL: On the whole it isn’t. What a lot of people want from a novel is absorption, they want to vanish into another world. If I could guess the irritation with the average reader with a short story, it’s too much work getting in and getting comfortable to the ratio of satisfaction achieved, it’s over before you’ve gotten comfortable. What people like with a novel is, ‘who are these people? Oh cool,’ and then you’re with them for a while. That’s the preference. But that's okay, there are people who like short stories, and people like to read them. It’s very easy to get into bogus propositions like ‘the short story must be championed.’ Whatever!
of Rupert Thomson
T.A.Z.: Temporary Autonomous Zone
H&F: There’s that school of thought that the artist just makes the same piece of art over and over again. Do you feel outside of that? Do you feel a freedom from that?
JL: I try not to repeat myself. I love that sport, I try to reinvent what it means to be me writing each time I work. My friend said I’m much less interested in trying to do something no one else has done, than I am in trying to do something that I’ve never done. One thing is a real problem to work on, the other is imaginary. It’s much more interesting to work on the real problem, of getting away from yourself in a way that will enable you to be surprised. And then of course you’ll meet yourself coming around the corner, one heartbeat after that surprise.
H&F: In the game against yourself do you feel you’re winning?
JL: Do I feel I’m winning? It’s day to day. I couldn’t stop playing long enough to try to guess about the shape of the larger game. I know that I put me in check just as often as I get put in check.
H&F: You’ve said that in the past when writing you’re "afraid to not be funny, to not be charming." Has that changed?
JL: Yeah I don’t identify with that quote much anymore. It doesn’t mean I’m claiming to have transcended or solved something, but that doesn’t sound like what I worry about when I’m writing.
H&F: Is there a new fear?
JL: Well. It’s a good question, [long silence] obviously ... since I can’t answer it. I mostly just worry about running out of time now. It’s very much a material issue.
By the time you’re my age you know your own limitations better than any, even your harshest critic could possibly presume to inform you. Your job is just to write to the very edge of those, the absolute limit of those resistances. Up out at the edge of what I believe I’ve detected are my resistances, I can see five or six solid books that I want to make and I’m 51 and I’ve got two little kids, and I’m still prone to saying yes to too many nice little side things. And I’ve just - the fear if you’re really asking, is that I won’t to get the job done.
The late works of the writers I love, they’re not subtracting from anything, and sometimes there’s a nice result and you have people talking in a very pretentious but also charming way about the idea of the late style … but even before that ... like I say, I feel like there could be five or six quite vital books - that my prime isn’t necessarily done for a little while yet.
Photography: Camilo Fuentealba