Down the Wormhole with Jonathan Lethem: On Male Complicity and Publishing in a Pandemic
Brian Gresko Profiles the Author of The Arrest
“How familiar are you with the films of Orson Welles?” Jonathan Lethem asks me.
We’re talking over Zoom, Lethem from his home in California, where it’s early in the morning, and me from my studio in Brooklyn. His question takes me aback, because I had just brought up Michael Seidenberg, whose spirit I feel hovering over Lethem’s latest novel, his twelfth, The Arrest.
Michael ran a bookstore hidden in a small apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side called Brazenhead Books, a blend of BYOB speakeasy, literary salon, and used book paradise, open to any who could find it. After a reading Lethem gave in 2013, I accompanied him there—Michael, a glass of cheap scotch in hand, proudly showed me a photo taken in Brooklyn in the 70s of himself as a young man with a teenage Lethem. A gregarious, erudite, and warm-hearted free-thinker, Michael was one of the men who mentored Lethem after his mother died when he was thirteen (which Lethem writes about in his 2005 essay “The Beards”). Last summer I was shocked, as many of Michael’s friends were, when he died. (And if you knew Michael you know he was never Seidenberg or Mr. Seidenberg but always Michael.)
I admit to Lethem that I might be reading into The Arrest, but “Michael vibes,” as the author puts it, have made their way into many of his books, most centrally 2009’s Chronic City, where Michael partly inspired the critic Perkus Tooth and his stuffed-to-the-brim Upper East Side apartment. More apropos to The Arrest, Michael kept a column for The New Inquiry entitled “Unsolicited Advice for End Times,” and as David Burr Gerard noted in his intimate remembrance of the man, sometimes wryly asked “What did I think the end times were gonna be like?” after hearing about something he thought terrible, like Twitter. Lethem’s new novel is premised around just that question.
It’s set after an unspecified freezing of technology—the arrest of the title—during which the Internet along with capitalism and the American government collapses. The story follows Sandy Duplessis, a former L.A. television writer who’s found refuge from the apocalypse on a peninsula in rural Maine, where his sister Maddy plays a key role in an agrarian anarcho-communist community. All is relatively calm until a remnant from Duplessis’ past life, a wealthy Hollywood producer named Peter Todbaum, who also has a shady history with Maddy, shows up in a nuclear-powered tunneling car tricked out with an espresso machine. It’s unclear what Todbaum wants—to lord over the community, or harass Maddy, or simply hold court around a fire sipping cappuccinos and telling stories of the horrors he may have witnessed traveling cross-country—but his aggressive energy upsets the peaceful community, with Duplessis caught in the middle.
Orson Welles is far from my mind in all of this, so when Lethem mentions him I ask what movie he’s thinking of. “That’s the trick—practically all of them,” he says. “Orson Welles is obsessed with the dynamic, charismatic, but often problematic elder, almost always played by Welles himself, and the younger male protege.”
He points to Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) and Charles Foster Kane (Welles) in 1941’s Citizen Kane, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Hank Quinlan (Welles) in 1958’s Touch of Evil, Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) and Flastaff (Welles) in 1965’s Chimes at Midnight; even a lesser Welles like 1955’s Mr. Arkadin features the motif. In these films the younger man has to figure out what to do with what Lethem calls “the problem of charisma, influence, and male power,” which includes on the one side bonhomie and kinship, and on the other malignant things like bullying and abuse.
“In Touch of Evil, Quinlan is a monster, and Vargus has to overthrow his influence totally. On the other hand, when Prince Hal betrays Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight it’s a tragedy. Falstaff is everything that’s good in man.”
This pattern in Welles’s work has become a template in Lethem’s own, of which he’s fully aware. In his books, this scale runs from Chronic City’s Perkus Tooth to The Arrest’s Peter Todbaum, both characters with the initials of P.T., which brings to mind Barnum, another larger-than-life charismatic male figure. “Perkus Tooth is Falstaff,” Lethem says, “he’s the essence of the way critique shatters the death grip of consensus and status quo – he’s what you need in that book, and it’s tragic when you lose him. In this one, Todbaum is the opposite of what you need.”
And when depicting someone enthralled to another man’s charisma, what does Lethem call upon? His feelings for Michael.
“If I had been writing with the foreknowledge that we’d lose Michael, I probably wouldn’t have relied on that,” he says. “Because if Todbaum is a Michael, well, he’s one of the darker Michaels, he’s one of the worst.”
Lethem continues, “What I’ve learned over the years is that I write about complicity. This transcends the Brooklyn stuff, the science-fiction, and the crime stories. Where do we go with a creature like Todbaum who has swept us up?”
Furthermore, what does a community—in The Arrest one organized on the basis of the utopian movements of the Age of Aquarius, which Lethem experienced in communes as a child (and the history of which he explored in his 2013 opus Dissident Gardens)—do with that bad man? “What does it do to a community to even consider who is going to be their cop, or what form their response is going to take if they don’t outsource it to other basically bad people?”
He has no answers, but from book to book, he animates this question in story and images.
Since we’re speaking of Chronic City, I ask about an Easter Egg I noticed, a literal connection between that novel and The Arrest, in the character of Laird Noteless. In Chronic, Noteless—described as “the living master of dystopian public sculpture”—doesn’t appear much on the page, but his art does, in particular a huge hole he excavates in upper Manhattan into which people pitch trash and sometimes themselves. The same work by Noteless is mentioned in The Arrest as well, and so I wonder: is there a Lethem-verse that these books belong to?
“Not a-verse,” he says, and laughs. “They’re really separate, which is why I think that joke is funny, because when my books do link it’s more like alternate realities that have a weird wormhole you can look through.”
He points to another example in the second half of 2003’s semi-autobiographical Fortress of Solitude, when Dylan Ebdus goes on a date with a woman named Lucinda Hoekke. Four years later, Hoekke appears as the bass player at the center of the band in Lethem’s comic novel You Don’t Love Me Yet. “Can You Don’t Love Me Yet and Fortress of Solitude exist in the same universe?” he asks. “It’s almost like they’re written by two different writers. But Lucinda somehow journeyed from one book to the other.”
Besides amusing himself with these internarrative relationships, he’s also measuring similarities. In Chronic City, Laird Noteless’s public sculptures were inspired by what Lethem considers the brutal modernism of Frank Gehry. At the time of Chronic’s composition, Gehry was attached to the Atlantic Yards project, a development blitz that is currently remaking downtown Brooklyn in the mode of downtown Manhattan, which Lethem opposed. When he moved to L.A. a decade ago, to teach creative writing at Pomona College, he learned that many film producers idolize Gehry, who they see as uncompromising and powerful. So in The Arrest, Lethem’s imaginary producer, Todbaum, feels the same about his imaginary modernist, Noteless.
“Todbaum and Noteless would have hung out and flattered each other—like, ‘you make fifty million dollar movies and I make fifty million dollar sculptures and nobody can stop us! We bring them into the world and goddamnit, people have to deal with it.”
In his 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem describes Chronic City as taking a “sidelong glance” at the discomfort of post-9/11 New York City. And so I ask, does The Arrest similarly speak to life in America under Trump?
“How could it not?” he replies. “Every novel is partly just a journal of days. And The Arrest has, inside its fiction, a documentary of me waking up perplexed every morning for the last few years, trying to keep myself sane and amused.”
Doing so required reaching back to what he calls “older equipment.” In the late seventies and early eighties, “just when I was coming into consciousness of what it was to be alive in history, the world seemed dead set on killing everything I cared about. The tools I used to get through the Reagan era were dystopian science fiction and near-future extrapolative mordant satirical science fiction.”
So if The Arrest feels a part of a lineage of older Lethem works that include 1994’s Gun, with Occasional Music and 1995’s Amnesia Moon, that’s because it is. And like those books, it isn’t straight-up science fiction or genre-anything, but rather, in the self-conscious mode Lethem admits to being unable to avoid, the narrative addresses and sometimes dismantles familiar tropes. To put it more plainly, the characters know they’re living in a dystopia because they’ve read the same dystopian fantasies Lethem has: Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station 11, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.
“You see this in Motherless Brooklyn (1999),” he tells me, “where Lionel Essrog reads Raymond Chandler and thinks, am I in that kind of book? Can I pretend to be for a while?”
The characters in The Arrest are especially critical of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a synecdoche of how Lethem’s narrative is The Road’s antithesis: it’s not about traveling through an apocalyptic wasteland, but rather trying to live somewhere and locate normalcy in a radically new reality. This isn’t far from what we’re all experiencing this very year.
“The guy in The Road always knows what to do to survive,” Lethem says. “My characters can’t operate with that confidence or clarity, it seems a little too simplistic to them. They’re paralyzed by the meta-generic nature of their situation, which is more like how I experience life. One of the things that 2020 has been about is, ‘Oh, so is this what a global pandemic feels like? It mostly involves…. Sourdough starter?’”
He’s joking, and makes clear that over-generalizations about what everyone is experiencing right now are obnoxious, but it brings us to that unavoidable topic: life during the pandemic. And what it’s like, or what he thinks it will be like, to publish a novel set after American society crumbles at a time when that seems in many ways to be happening.
Lethem calls this set of circumstances an “interference pattern,” because it will inevitably bring up questions of a predicative nature. He dismisses that view of science fiction as corny, and says he’s no Prometheus, coming down from the heavens to tell us anything about the future. “The book’s only useful as an allegory,” he says. “Not as an implement for factual truth. My books are paintings, they’re a record of me puzzling in words things I feel, and read and am going through; they’re figurative.”
An appropriate metaphor for an author who studied visual art in high school and before dropping out of college, and whose father is a painter. As for what launching The Arrest will be like in this environment, Lethem’s as unsure as everyone, though he knows it will mean a lot of time spent at home on Zoom rather than going cross-country. “I’m an old dog,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of book tours. I won’t miss the airports. But some of the sweetest moments are just before you go in front of the audience. Bookstores don’t have a green room, so they put you in the stock room, which I miss from being a bookseller myself, and bring you a drink. You sign some stock and talk with the booksellers. I’m going to miss that a lot.”
Just as our society is confronting assumptions or disguises which have fallen away in the pandemic—seeing realities of economic disparity and un-confronted racism more starkly—individuals are challenging themselves too. “There can be aspects of what you did or participated in that now seem strangely unnecessary, or which presumed things you can no longer sustain,” he says.
Some of this unmasking is awkward, some revelatory. He’s not sure how that will shake out in publishing, but he does hope publishing loses its obsession with “presentism.” On this, he circles back to Michael. “Brian, you know this because of my relationship with Michael, and my love of used bookstores, and the celebration that I wear on my sleeve of the recycled, the dogeared persistence of the rescued artifact, the out of print, the obscure, but I’ve never been congruent with the idea of my book or anyone’s book as ‘new.’”
The publishing industry, like the movie industry, assumes that after a matter of weeks a book is no longer of interest to readers at large. Yet complex novels require time to parse, which critics working under tight deadlines don’t have, so ambitious work sometimes gets panned. Fully aware that our conversation is occasioned by the publication of The Arrest, and with apologies to his publicist, Lethem admits he thinks this silly. Books don’t have an expiration date, nor are they better when fresh, and yet they’re treated as such.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of that publishing machinery several times over; a couple of times, I was even the flavor of the month! It was like, ‘There is no other book right now, you wrote the only book!’ But on the whole, I’m deeply opposed to that system of attention that suggests a book exists in some preeminent way at the moment of publication. I love my books best when someone comes along on the signing line and is like, “Is it ok if I give you this old copy of Girl in Landscape (1998) to sign?” It’s like, ‘Is it ok?! You still remember that?!’ This is what it’s for.”