Reading Jonathan Lethem ...?

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I've become greatly enamoured with his writing in the past year (er, not what he's written in the past year, but what of his I have read in that time), especially Gun, With Occasional Music (one of my all-time favorite titles - and if I were ever inclined to form a band I'd probably steal the name). And I also quite liked She Climbed Across the Table, but was a bit disappointed with Motherless Brooklyn - the writing for the latter was brilliant and some aspects of the plot line were inspired, but the overall arching plot line with the gangsters and such struck me as being not terribly creative or new.

And now I have, sitting on my shelf and calling out to me, his Fortress of Solitude, Amnesia Moon, and Girl in Landscape - and I can't decide which of the three to add to my "I'm going to read something from this stack of books next" pile. Any suggestions? Thoughts? Did I miss something with Motherless Brooklyn?

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Friday, 23 January 2004 06:54 (eighteen years ago) link

Rah for Ms Laura posting again!

When ILE did the book club, Motherless Brooklyn was one of our books, and generally most people found it lacking originality just as you said re: its gangster angle. I however enjoyed it immensely for precisely the gangsterisms and the unsolving (that should be resolving obviously) of the mystery -- though I should note that I haven't read much detective fiction before.

Leee Majors (Leee), Friday, 23 January 2004 07:04 (eighteen years ago) link

I loved Motherless Brooklyn. Fortress of Solitude is pretty high on my reading list, but it always takes me awhile to commit to really long books (I always figure that I would rather read a couple of different things in the same amount of time). So what's the best out of his earlier work?

Jordan (Jordan), Friday, 23 January 2004 20:25 (eighteen years ago) link

I'm pretty much thrilled with Gun, With Occasional Music - kind of cyber-punk noir, with a mobster kangaroo, among other noteworthy characters. I think that the strength of the story is that Lethem doesn't explain a lot of aspects of the futuristic world - some are described, loosely, within context, but lots of things are left hanging, which allows the reader to freely imagine the circumstances of their development.

She Crawled Across the Table reminded me a lot of a Murakami tale - playing around with some physics and relationships and identity - interesting, but needs another round of editing, I think.

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Saturday, 24 January 2004 01:25 (eighteen years ago) link

Fortress of Solitude is amazing, despite (a) a certain overwrittenness in patches (ex: there's some line about a paint chip falling and the floor "receiving its weight," which sounds pompous to me) and (b) a sort of insoluble structural problem, which is that everything happens in the first huge section, and the second section is simply Dylan Ebdus trying to deal with it. Some things happen there, but they almost seem incidental. The plot, being "Guy describes childhood; guy describes self as adult, unable to leave childhood," is not energeic. I'm not sure how much this is really a "problem"--since the effect of portraying Dylan as an adult who left Brooklyn too early and hasn't left it at all is quite moving, and you want to learn about his reunion with Mingus--but it'll rub most readers the wrong way.
Still. I've not read anybody who can use pop culture to characterize so well.

Phil Christman, Saturday, 24 January 2004 05:42 (eighteen years ago) link

Hmmm - okay, Fortress of Solitude has just moved further-up in my "Read These Next" pile. Thanks, Phil.

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Monday, 26 January 2004 03:08 (eighteen years ago) link

I think She Climbed Across The Table would make a fantastic film (though the very ending might be hard). One of the few books in the last few years that I devoured in one (increasing chilly bath) sitting.

Pete (Pete), Monday, 26 January 2004 12:43 (eighteen years ago) link

*laughing* I was thinking the same thing about Gun, With Occasional Music, Pete - and that P. Jackson could pull off the irony and wit, without having to dumb-down everything. I agree with you about the ending to She Climbed Across the Table - it would be a challenge to convey those images and sensations to the viewers, but I don't know that it would be impossible, either.

So was the ending worth the chilly bathing?

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Tuesday, 27 January 2004 02:35 (eighteen years ago) link

Ms Laura, I hope you enjoy Fortress when you get around to it (in fact I'll feel like an ass otherwise, but I'm pretty confident you'll like it).
I thought As She Climbed was fun, but I never finished it, and it's like two pages long. Somehow wasn't compelled. Weird, huh? (I was kinda busy then.)
Did anyone else find out about Lethem in the same random way I did--his guest-editorship of the 2002 Best Music Writing volume? Had no clue about him before that.

Phil Christman, Tuesday, 27 January 2004 05:01 (eighteen years ago) link

Phil - don't sweat feeling like an ass - I'm sure that I'll enjoy Lethem's Fortress - but I doubt that anything will compare to my love of GWOM, which just tickles my reading response center like nothing else.

The conclusion of Across the Table was pretty much stream of consciousness stuff, near as I can recall (however, I think that I was reading it in the wee hours of the morning and that might be the explanation for my hazy recall and meandering ideas).

I stumbled across Lethem in the most typical way - bought his Motherless Brooklyn when it won the award and then was hooked.

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Tuesday, 27 January 2004 05:30 (eighteen years ago) link

Ms. Laura, I'm gonna go with Amnesia Moon, and you should take my recommendation since I'm one of the other people who thinks GWOM is the best Lethem and that Motherless Brooklyn is not among his better ones. Amnesia Moon has something of the same anarcho-science-fictional channeled wildness. As does Girl in Landscape, but that one for whatever reason didn't ring for me as much. (Though I didn't know GiL was a rewrite of _The Searchers_ until I was embarrassed by having JL himself explain it to me the one time I met him through a friend of a friend.) OK but just to throw out one more thing--maybe you should get This Shape We're In, which is both my second-favorite Lethem book and the one most like Gun, With Occasional Music.

On the other hand, I haven't read Fortress of Solitude, so maybe it's great!

J. Ellenberg, Sunday, 1 February 2004 04:45 (eighteen years ago) link

*laughing* Okay, Jordan, I have taken your recommendation on Amnesia Moon - and as there was room for one new text in my "read these next" stack, AM has been added. Thanks for the suggestion.

I didn't know about Lethem's This Shape We're In - many thanks for bringing it to my attention (and to my latest "Order These Next" pile of sticky notes).

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Monday, 2 February 2004 21:31 (eighteen years ago) link

one year passes...
I have discovered this thread at last, having read that book, TFofS.

Phil C has a good point, about structure. The book feels unbalanced, perhaps in just the way he describes.

But I suppose to me the book is never quite right; its attitudes and preoccupations - its sense of what fascinates - are always a little askew and alien to mine.

Yet I don't mean in saying this to detract from the writer's forceful gift. Maybe - yes - maybe he uses a little too much force.

the dreamfox, Wednesday, 2 March 2005 19:24 (seventeen years ago) link

Anyone read his personal history essay in the NYer last week : "The Beards"? He talks about his relationship to the work of various writers, musicians and film-makers growing up and how his consumption of their work became a kind of "beard" for his own state of adolescence. Interesting insights.

o. nate (onate), Wednesday, 2 March 2005 19:54 (seventeen years ago) link

i have not long finished this book too and also found it unbalanced - i LOVED the first section and the first 50 or so pages of the latter section. The second half of the book was didn't ring true and seemed to stretch my suspension of disbelief just too far. I couldnt understand why the ring had changed its powers and didn't swallow it. the section at the end of the book concerning the prison visit (trying not to give too much away here) felt forced and unbelievable, almost laughable, and the meeting in the last 15 pages or so just seemed meaningless to me: I'd much rather Dylan had reconnected with his father. Also i just wasn't sufficiently interested in Mingus to understand why Dylan was so drawn to him. Mingus seemed pretty dull to me, in fact.

As phil said upthread, the book is very overwritten - at points embarrassingly so: "his hair was astonishingly equal in length everywhere on his head"; "that shadows stood sipping from paper bags as he struggled down to join his bicycle on the pavement was only appropriate, matched his mood" (huh?) and who has ever seen girls skipping rope and seen their knees "shining like bunches of grapes" ....Bunches of grapes?!

At one point Dylan describes Arthur Lomb as "making such a show of a card unplayed that he tipped his whole hand"; sometimes Lethem does just that.

jed_ (jed), Wednesday, 2 March 2005 21:41 (seventeen years ago) link


jed_ (jed), Wednesday, 2 March 2005 21:44 (seventeen years ago) link

Well said, Jed.

the bellefox, Thursday, 3 March 2005 14:49 (seventeen years ago) link

It's difficult to believe "This Shape We're In" was written before 9/11. Just reading finished reading it, assumed it was a comment on our all too easy prodding, after "thirty years of lying in wait, of losing ourselves in distraction and disillusion, of losing siggt of our rhyme and reason, our deep-embedded programming, come to a grand and glorious end as we spill out of hiding and smite them high and hard, finally take it to the hole. Why shouldn't they get what's coming? I mean, what the fuck was I so afraid of?" to turn a bombing on our shores into a war elsewhere. But it came out in February, 2001. Uncanny.

Carl Solomon, Sunday, 13 March 2005 19:06 (seventeen years ago) link

Rumor has it he'll be speaking at Bennington as commencement type.

Remy (null) (x Jeremy), Monday, 14 March 2005 09:00 (seventeen years ago) link

I'm just getting into Fortress Of Solitude, finally. It's interesting so far, but hasn't really grabbed me yet.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Monday, 14 March 2005 20:41 (seventeen years ago) link

one year passes...
I wrote this somewhere else about his next one:

Over the weekend I read an advance of Jonathan Lethem's new novel, You Don't Love Me Yet. It's pretty good even though it's about an indie rock band.

I was a little worried that he had fizzled out after Fortress of Solitude (i.e. his (over)ambitious novel that tied up a lot of autobiography and pet themes), that he developed an Axl Rose complex. That was in '03 and only compilations of earlier stuff (good short stories and bad essays) have come out since. So, while YDLMY may not be quite as good as his earlier genre-jacking novels I'm enough of a fan that I'm glad he's having fun again. It's a slight book and very readable, so I was able to blow through it during a three-gig weekend.

Also, the parts about rock shows and being in a band are waaaay less embarassing than when most other writers try to cover that sort of thing.

One of the only advance reviews I was able to find mentioned that it's a rewrite of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which if true might completely change my impression. Or it might not.

Jordan (Jordan), Tuesday, 21 November 2006 20:13 (sixteen years ago) link

send it on blud. send it on : (

tom west (thomp), Tuesday, 21 November 2006 22:43 (sixteen years ago) link

I tried YSI but it didn't work :(

Jordan (Jordan), Wednesday, 22 November 2006 05:41 (sixteen years ago) link

Fortress of Solitude is one of the few novels i have found to seriously address the moral and aesthetic concerns of people my age, with a severity and belief in old fashioned narrative construction, it is funny, and tragic, and sexy in equal measures, adn actually takes things liek comic books and jazz, cocaine and funk to be important, for their own sake, and not as objects of pastiche. it moved me deeply.

he wrote a short story for the new yorker, called super goat man, that is in equal measures a parody of new yorker stories, a story about the death of qausi fascist super heros, and a tender/tragic medetation on the nature of masculinity and masculine is both amusing, bitter, and something else, new and stranger, i have no idea why the new yorker decided to publish it, but i am glad they did, and that they illustrated it with a barney cremaster centaur suggested they knew what tehy were doing. i dont know where it is collected--but it is one of my favourite short stories.

pinkmoose (jacklove), Friday, 24 November 2006 03:34 (sixteen years ago) link

one month passes...
haven't read You Don't Love Me Yet bt read the feb harper's at the library. lethem's piece regards sampling in the most abstract sense, the essay itself a cut-up from sources across the spectrum. He gets beyond the schismic polarity of the argument towards the real issue of the recycling of idea, the refinement (read revision) therein and the absurdity of copywrite law but the necessity of getting power (read money) for your work-- creativity versus the empire of dead ideas, and he doesn't mention the long tail curve, etc

realkwaint (HGULTRUILLUM), Tuesday, 16 January 2007 15:57 (fifteen years ago) link


realkwaint (HGULTRUILLUM), Tuesday, 16 January 2007 17:09 (fifteen years ago) link

i sort of hoped that the second half of that essay would have been trhe whole thing

pinkmoose (jacklove), Friday, 19 January 2007 17:02 (fifteen years ago) link

Read Girl In Landscape, She Crawled Across the Table and Motherless Brooklyn in quick succession about a year ago. Enjoyed them, though they all seemed bound by genre and an attention to fashionable narrative styles.

They add up to an interesting growth chart:

TEENS - The isolated adolescent of Girl, her late-80s/early-80s revisionist sci-fi western setting, and the way it all disguises a fairly straigtforward story of parental disintegration.

TWENTIES - In She Crawled, post-postgrad profs plough through the Rudy Rucker playbook as they try to sort out what love is and means. The mania of discovery and newness, a sense of the fragmentated fallout of youthful idealism.

THIRTIES - Motherless Brooklyn. Here, we get the first hints of age, regret and nostalgia, as the optimistic youth of science fiction is exchanged for the embattled weariness of pulp detection. Old neighborhoods vanish, love is rueful and doomed.

Haven't read Fortress of Solitude or Gun, with Occasional Music. Wonder how those'd slot into the scheme...

verbose, bombastic, self-immolating (Pye Poudre), Monday, 22 January 2007 19:29 (fifteen years ago) link

Based on a quick read some years ago, I'd say GUN is mid-twenties territory. Can't elaborate without re-reading, though.

Laurel (Laurel), Monday, 22 January 2007 19:48 (fifteen years ago) link

Anyone read this? Looks fun, republished genre stuff from early in his career.

Jordan (Jordan), Monday, 22 January 2007 20:08 (fifteen years ago) link

I'm not a huge Lethem fan, but I somehow ended up reading Motherless Brooklyn when it came out and listening to an audiobook version last year. Whoever reads on the audiobook does a pretty amazing job with it. I recall being turned off by reading Lionel's dialogue in the book; listening to it was much more enjoyable. The guy also does a great job w/ Frank Minna.

Jamesy (SuzyCreemcheese), Monday, 29 January 2007 14:15 (fifteen years ago) link

It's Steve Buscemi!!

Jordan (Jordan), Monday, 29 January 2007 17:19 (fifteen years ago) link

You know, this is strange but I think there is more than one audio recording. After a little research, I think Frank Muller did the reading I listened to (and what's funny is that even uses the buscemi write-up for the Frank Muller version).

Jamesy (SuzyCreemcheese), Monday, 29 January 2007 19:53 (fifteen years ago) link

four months pass...

okay a friend of mine just loaned me You Don't Love Me Yet and I am really dreading reading it. If its like the last third of Fortress of Solitudex10 I don't think I can handle it. I miss the sci-fi surrealism

Shakey Mo Collier, Monday, 18 June 2007 18:12 (fifteen years ago) link

I like SF surrealism when doen well, but I thought he did it badly (based only on 'As she climbed across the table' or whatever it was called, which left me distinctly underwhelmed).

James Morrison, Monday, 18 June 2007 23:21 (fifteen years ago) link

YDLMY = some nice touches, and a book cover so nicely designed i felt overfashionable reading it in public, but maybe kinda just maaaaybe a flop.

'how we got insipid' - i haven't read the other story, but 'how we got in town and out again' is in (at least the uk edition of) his back-when-he-was-an-SF-author collection the wall of the sky, the wall of the eye: it's an okayish i guess rewrite of that old noirish novel about the kids doing a dance-til-you-drop competition, but instead they're in some kind of sexed-up virtual reality environment. it at least manages to avoid being dreadful.

i reread men and cartoons after forcing myself thro fortress again for my undergrad dissertation, it's still good-to-brilliant throughout, except for the what-is-it-doing-here early-career shorty story.

s. buscemi doing motherless brooklyn sounds brilliant.

the youth/young adulthood/middle age bit doesn't so much work with those three novels as i don't think he came up with them in that order. ahem.

thomp, Wednesday, 20 June 2007 00:56 (fifteen years ago) link

you liked men and cartoons? really? i remember finding it awful + i liked fortress & motherless brooklyn. i cant remember my actual problems w/ the book so my opinions arent going to be v illuminating but which was the story they included that was real old?

t_g, Thursday, 28 June 2007 13:15 (fifteen years ago) link

'access fantasy'

for 'good-to-brilliant' read maybe 'passable-to-really-good', i guess.

thomp, Friday, 29 June 2007 01:46 (fifteen years ago) link

I finished Fortress last night. I almost loved it, but ever since I passed the liner note I've had the feeling that the whole doesn't quite add up. The first two-thirds I did love, and bits here and there in the rest (the chapter about 'Dose' in particular). It's not quite third-person-good first-person-bad - it's more like past-good present-bad. Which is maybe fitting.

What's weird is that normally, when I've read a book, it's obvious to me whether I should forget it, and if not who I should recommend it to. With Fortress, though, I have no idea what to do with it. Partly I'm not sure how good it really is. But mostly it's that the blend of references feels like it has been written for no-one but me. And I don't even like soul/comics/graffiti/cocaine that much.

Ismael Klata, Friday, 29 June 2007 14:19 (fifteen years ago) link

The first half of Fortress is breath-taking in its gorgeous prose. The first time I read the book, I was so utterly disappointed at the tense shift for the second half that I considered the book a failure. Having read it again a few months ago, I'm coming around to it. Lethem has said that he wanted the reader to feel this sadness at the past gone by, and the abandoning of that magical sort of prose from Dylan's childhood is supposed to embody that. It's not just some capricious change of style that Lethem did just to screw with the reader. A friend of mine who read it at the same time says he understands that impulse, but wonders if there couldn't have been some other way of marking that passage of time (or loss of it, I guess), other than blowing up the prose. The "human cipher human dream" line from the end gives me goosebumps every time I think of it, though.

PS - Has anyone heard the Prisonaires? They're okay, in my opinion. Nothing real classic.

jposnan, Tuesday, 3 July 2007 01:29 (fifteen years ago) link

two weeks pass...

The remarks upthread about the overwritten parts of Fortress are OTM. The very first sentence is so precious I almost didn't keep going. For all its great descriptive moments and insights, the novel repeatedly stumbles over its own ambitions. In general, I wish Lethem would relax as a writer--he always seems to be trying to live up to his rep, and it's crippling his style. The stuff he's done for Rolling Stone (JB, Dylan) has been dreadful.

Martin Van Burne, Thursday, 19 July 2007 15:35 (fifteen years ago) link

Partly I'm not sure how good it really is. But mostly it's that the blend of references feels like it has been written for no-one but me. And I don't even like soul/comics/graffiti/cocaine that much.

Wow, this is exactly how I felt about it. Although I liked the realist parts a lot more than the magical realist superhero parts.

Hurting 2, Thursday, 19 July 2007 21:16 (fifteen years ago) link

One more thing: why call the first section of the book 'Underberg'?

Ismael Klata, Monday, 23 July 2007 09:34 (fifteen years ago) link

I wish Lethem would relax as a writer--he always seems to be trying to live up to his rep, and it's crippling his style.

otm, judging from that autobiograpical thing in the new yorker about growing up w/music or whatever, he was just flailing away there. more proof that writing about yourself is a whole different process than making stuff up. and mixing the two may be the trickiest of all.

motherless brooklyn was great, a tour-de-force in some respects, but it would be a shame if that turns out to be his peak. here's hoping he snaps back with a trim, tightly constructed new novel. soon.

m coleman, Monday, 23 July 2007 10:39 (fifteen years ago) link

four months pass...

I really enjoyed his story in the last New Yorker!

Hurting 2, Tuesday, 18 December 2007 00:25 (fourteen years ago) link

Recently read Amnesia Moon and Men and Cartoons (after reading several other Lethem novels in quick succession a while back). Loved the wild imagination of AM, reminded me of PK Dick and Tim Powers circa Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Felt rushed, unfinished, ultimately a bit disappointing in its rush to tie everything up, but still great.

Men and Cartoons was a letdown. Much too distanced and mannered. I get the sense that he's trying to cram himself into a "respectable contemporary fiction" suit, and the results are awkward, less than memorable. In his early writing, there was this thick skin of genre storytelling through which you could nonetheless see Lethem struggling to engage with the actual material of life. That's what makes those early books so fascinating, whether or not you evaluate them in a sci-fi context.

In his recent stuff, though, that tension is absent. He's just another comfortable post-postmodernist flogging his pop-cultural baggage while writing workshop fiction. Kind of a drag.

Anybody else reading the comic book?

contenderizer, Friday, 21 December 2007 00:11 (fourteen years ago) link

Thanks for the heads up about that short story, Hurting, I liked it too.

Jordan, Friday, 21 December 2007 15:43 (fourteen years ago) link

Definitely felt the Kafka influence

Hurting 2, Friday, 21 December 2007 18:45 (fourteen years ago) link

Liked it too, busy eating my words. No trace left of anything "postmodern" or "pop-cultural" in it. Straightforward realist fiction, but not at all dull or prissy. Elegant, creepy, well observed. Get Kafka in the neighborhood paranoia and alienation, but Cheever too.

Maybe he's better of on one side of the fence or the other, rather than straddling the middle.

contenderizer, Friday, 21 December 2007 22:13 (fourteen years ago) link

I didn't think the ending was that straightforward realist - it was a tad absurd.

Hurting 2, Friday, 21 December 2007 22:46 (fourteen years ago) link

FAO Mark S (and whoever):

10 pages later:

'Miriam yanked Cicero by the hand into Chinatown, splendidly impatient to move him like a pawn across the mental chessboard of her city' (p.66).

This still isn't that great, as it again carries hyperbole - she has to be 'splendidly impatient', and it has to be 'her city'; these are typical of the unconvincing hyperbole around this character (who is btw roughly based on JL's mother).

But it's basically OK, as the chess metaphor is working OK -- it makes sense re what the characters are actually doing; it gives us a different, figurative / conceptual vantage on the actual scene (downtown Manhattan here is being used like a chessboard - OK); it picks up an earlier thread of metaphor without making too much fuss about it; and it might even (though I don't think this is essential) connect with the characters' own perceptions, as they have both been thinking about chess.

the pinefox, Thursday, 23 August 2018 10:32 (four years ago) link

in that case, "manhattan seen as a chessboard" is what i'd call a shared belief system within this book -- not a particularly demanding or stakes-raising one, admittedly, and not one lethem necessarily needs to share (tho he does need to be able to identify it). morever, its status as shared belief system is initiated (ie foreshadowed) via the first description, which signals that it's more than an amusing momentary linking but a shaping attitude we shd be looking out for.

it kind of messes this up (a) by being somewhat heavyhanded but (b) also tossing in the idea of revolution. in the first place chess doesn't have revolutions, and if it did, it's not at all evident they would make the chessboard round --even if they were galilean rather than idk french- or russian-type revolutions?

(caveat again: this is all the lethem i've ever read)

mark s, Thursday, 23 August 2018 10:48 (four years ago) link

I think you are calling a 'belief system' what I would call a 'metaphor'.

the pinefox, Thursday, 23 August 2018 17:07 (four years ago) link

I agree about the problem with 'revolutions', which is also an instance of what I keep calling hyperbole.

the pinefox, Thursday, 23 August 2018 17:08 (four years ago) link

Okay, Tom Dedlock is ilx0r Tom D plus a Dickens character from Bleak House shoved into the first sentence of Joyce’s “The Dead” walking into a thread in which said ilx0r has participated. Nothing to see here.

The Vermilion Sand Reckoner (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 23 August 2018 18:47 (four years ago) link

It's too bad, because I've really been in the mood for some literary sci-fi/genre-bending.

So, any suggestions for new entries? I feel like it's increasingly hard to find new fiction where the writing is sentence-level great and also has, shall we say, thrillpower.

I realize there may not be much market incentive these days for young authors to spend time creating work like this and satisfy my specific entertainment desires, but I'd love something that hits that old Lethem/David Mitchell sweet spot.

change display name (Jordan), Wednesday, 29 August 2018 20:49 (four years ago) link

Karen Tidbeck

Οὖτις, Wednesday, 29 August 2018 20:55 (four years ago) link

altho for more in-depth discussion I recommend that rolling spec fic thread

Οὖτις, Wednesday, 29 August 2018 20:55 (four years ago) link


change display name (Jordan), Wednesday, 29 August 2018 20:57 (four years ago) link

Back to CHRONIC CITY. A big book, may take me a little while.

I'm interested and for me it's the JL crux book - the one where I'm unsure whether it's a last great JL novel to date, or a lazy meander; or which of those in greatest proportion.

I have a sense that JL and others have wanted Perkus Tooth to be a great character. And I've been somewhat resistant; felt that this was forced; that the character isn't that great. But I'll reassess now.

The other thing that strikes me is that JL is much more deeply into drugs than I'd ever realized. A common problem for me as someone who's never taken drugs.

the pinefox, Friday, 7 September 2018 14:29 (four years ago) link

I sense that much is hanging on the idea of 'friendship with Perkus Tooth' as the essence of the book.

Friendship is quite a good theme, and friendship around discussion, culture, music (as on ilx, even) -- is probably an underrated, underwritten theme, and credit to JL for hitting on it.

But does he make this friendship very vivid or warm? I'm not too sure. I have never even really been able to picture Tooth.

My other hunch has been that JL uses Tooth as a funnel for his own obsessions - Mailer, Brando, Cassavetes - airing them in a 'deniable' way - so Tooth is a useful intellectual alter ego figure, a way of channelling material and making it daft rather than making it look like JL's own ideas.

the pinefox, Friday, 7 September 2018 14:46 (four years ago) link

About 250pp in, a couple of thoughts:

1: quite favourable -- the bad things about the book (the meandering, etc) don't annoy me as much as I thought. It's the last FUN JL novel, at least.

2: I think he is genuinely trying here to do some kind of 'everyday life' narrative, almost 'in real time' - kind of an experiment. The writer it's all closest to, in a way, is Geoff Dyer.

3: the twist at the end seems slightly more foreshadowed than I'd seen first time round (with a lot of hints about paranoia and secrets), but I still need to get to the end to understand it (again?). I cannot remember the real exact relations between Janice and Oona.

4: quite a lot of small nods back to other JL. An example: Perkus's apartment appears to be on the same street as the Yorkville Zendo in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN.

5: DFW comes off worse here than I'd thought, with OBSTINATE DUST being promptly thrown into a ravine.

the pinefox, Saturday, 8 September 2018 17:54 (four years ago) link

It's a pity, or maybe it's necessary, that Mark S hasn't read this novel as he seems to me the closest UK equivalent I know to Perkus Tooth.

Though the more intense and political side of Perkus Tooth might even be a bit like our old friend Prof Carmody.

the pinefox, Saturday, 8 September 2018 17:56 (four years ago) link

given that this is quite good and OMEGA THE UNKNOWN is very good, as is THEY LIVE (2010) in fact -- I tend to conclude that the late 2000s were actually a surprisingly OK period for JL.

the pinefox, Saturday, 8 September 2018 17:57 (four years ago) link

perk s

mark s, Saturday, 8 September 2018 20:44 (four years ago) link

It all adds up !!

the pinefox, Sunday, 9 September 2018 07:08 (four years ago) link

to get back to the point abt metaphor vs belief system: obviously sometimes a cigar is just a cigar! not all metaphors are more than momentary -- but if a metaphor recurs, esp. if wound into the conversation and thoughts of more than one character, then i think it's worth seeing if it's a shaping force in the (shared?) worldview of the ppl being described, since sometimes it will be!

and sometimes it goes even deeper: as per "pathetic fallacy", which is an authorial worldview or belief system, that the behaviour of the non-living world (the weather, the landscape) not only amplifies but reflects what's going on in the lives of the (written) living -- a metaphor can certainly be an indicator that "as below so above" is in operation, in the minds of character and/or in the mind of the author

but not necessarily always and it's quite likely a dangerpoint for a book, since overegged belief-systems can be alienating

example: moby dick in moby-dick, not just a metaphor -- the whale as symbol of something takes over the minds of (almost) the crew (and the narrator -- who says he's been similarly taken over but perhaps actually hasn't in the end -- spends most of the book exploring things that whales are, and also mean

mark s, Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:06 (four years ago) link

All I can think of is Neil saying to Rik 'so most metaphors don't bear close examination.'

The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums (Chinaski), Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:26 (four years ago) link

i feel that the academic study of eng lit as it has on the whole emerged is not of neil's mind here

mark s, Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:28 (four years ago) link

also the young ones was written by ben elton, a man insanely over-committed to the comedy simile

mark s, Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:31 (four years ago) link

Haha. Yes. The reductio ad absurdum of the left.

The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums (Chinaski), Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:33 (four years ago) link

James Wood on Melville and metaphor: "Metaphors have a life of their own...Melville had a way of following
metaphor, and seeing where it led him. At times he is *compelled by the metaphor he inhabits...Of course no one is actually forced by metaphor, except a madman. But Melville's writing certainly displays an unusual devotion to the logic of metaphor, which is the logic of parallelism. Of all writers, he understood the independent, generative life that comes from likening something to something else. His work is deeply aware that as soon as you liken x to y, x has changed, and is now x+y, which has is its own parallel life...Melville reads as if he simply cannot tear himself away from the rival life, the alienated majesty, that metaphor offers".

This has always struck me as a good way to read Ballard. He has a series of almost universal metaphors (a cosmology?) that he pushes to a logical conclusion - like the madman in Wood's dictum.

The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums (Chinaski), Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:33 (four years ago) link

I haven't read (most people's favourite book) MOBY-DICK, so can't comment on its metaphors.

I agree with the view that metaphors can point to ideas, feelings or, let's say, 'ways of seeing', but I probably wouldn't normally call those 'belief systems', myself.

Funnily enough the sense of metaphor as taking on its own life or becoming preponderant, as in that Wood quotation, is also something that Lethem tends to say.

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 15:16 (four years ago) link

I finished rereading CHRONIC CITY today. I think it has gone up in my mind from a 6-7/10 Lethem to maybe even an 8/10 Lethem -- on a par, say, with AMNESIA MOON and GIRL IN LANDSCAPE. (Actually GIRL IN LANDSCAPE is one of its closest precursors in its ranginess, though it also echoes elements of various other books.)

I still don't think that I grasp the central plot or conspiracy clearly enough. The depth of Chase's amnesia about his own life is hardly explained.

Some of characters' 'motivation' is also not plain to me at all - for instance the way successive characters lovingly adopt a 3-legged dog does not seem very real. If a friend of mine had done that with a dog, and died, I would not take on the dog and sleep with it every night. Equally Oona's overall motivation for what she does in relation to Chase is not clear.

I don't know whether I am missing something or whether JL didn't really bother to think any of this through in a realistic way at all.

The encounter with the tiger works well, is poetic and powerful.

Once I had finished the book, on a park bench, I walked up to a bookshop I knew. Somehow I wanted to find books related to it, even if not to buy them. As I approached, I saw a digger digging a hole in the road outside it, and police lines of tape cordoning off the roads and pavements all around. In the circumstances, it was uncannily reminiscent of the book itself.

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 15:23 (four years ago) link

Note re metaphor -- we didn't seem to have any examples of what Mark S was saying ie:

"if a metaphor recurs, esp. if wound into the conversation and thoughts of more than one character, then i think it's worth seeing if it's a shaping force in the (shared?) worldview of the ppl being described"

I can think of one. I recently saw the film GUYS & DOLLS and was awed anew by its comic and musical magnificence.

In the title song, the singers - three dedicated gamblers - repeatedly sing that if you see a male doing something, it's likely that he's doing it for a woman, and the *likelihood* element is expressed in terms of gambling. This (which I already somewhat knew) struck me as charming and wonderfully coherent at the time. I think it is a clear instance of what is mentioned above.

But as it's a song in a musical, I do not think it follows that the same thing would transfer so extensively into prose fiction.

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 22:16 (four years ago) link

Call it sad, call it funny
But it's better than even money
That the guy's only doing it for some doll

Call it hell, call it heaven
But it's probable twelve to seven
That the guy's only doing it for some doll

Call it dumb, call it clever
Ah, but you can get odds forever
That the guy's only doing it for some doll

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 22:16 (four years ago) link

(This song is fabulous, but none of this has much to do with Lethem btw. The one actual JL connection is MARLON BRANDO.)

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 22:17 (four years ago) link

The more I think about it and go over it, the clearer I am that CHRONIC CITY improves with rereading. I can now almost imagine thinking it's one of the best or most important JL novels.

It doesn't have the discipline nor the humour of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, or GUN, or the intensity of FORTRESS. But once you clear those out of the way I'm not sure it's much inferior to any of the others. In fact it might even be better, or at least more enjoyable, than the novel it perhaps thematically shares most with -- AMNESIA MOON.

The Perkus Tooth character, which I had felt overblown, now works somewhat better for me. His final statement about rock critics has real poignancy. All remarkably close to Mark S's new book.

All this, on JL's post-9/11 book, on 9/11.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 11 September 2018 19:13 (four years ago) link

wait you haven't read my book

mark s, Tuesday, 11 September 2018 21:24 (four years ago) link

I have heard a lot about it ! :D

the pinefox, Tuesday, 11 September 2018 22:45 (four years ago) link

Read to the end of THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE at last. This becomes very moving - it's a magnificent book as a whole, up there almost with the great JL fictions.

The one thing I still haven't read in that book is the 40-page James Brown essay. I don't really know James Brown.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 10:00 (four years ago) link

he's good, he's the minister of the new new super heavy funk

mark s, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 10:05 (four years ago) link

Mark, you mentioned to me that you had liked JL's talk at a music conference? Was this 2007?

I think this is an article I just reread - 'dancing about architecture, or, fifth beatles'. It was OK! Considering JL's other accomplishments he is not bad at occupying the ILM-esque pop / rock / ism discussion territory.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 10:57 (four years ago) link

all here:

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 10:58 (four years ago) link

(actually that version is a bit confusingly different from the one in the book)

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 11:00 (four years ago) link

yes 2007: i enjoyed it as i listened to it but was very jet-lagged and remember not a word of it -- i will have to reacquaint myself with its content

(and i will when i get this other book-related admin done)

mark s, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 11:06 (four years ago) link

DISSIDENT GARDENS -- I think I can admire the jigsaw-puzzle narrative structure.

But it is still let down by an attitude to characterization, motive, idea: basically the old Pynchon / Rushdie problem.

YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET -- on the other hand, holds up surprisingly OK on a second reading. I'm even more dubious this time about a woman happily accepting the attentions of a strange older man (pre-'Me Too' content, so to speak). But the one thing this book does remarkably well is represent the actual experience of playing in a band. I can't remember ever feeling this depicted so truly anywhere else.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:41 (four years ago) link

It is striking that YDLMY is relatively 'realist' JL, but doesn't have the bad Pynchon / Rushdie style. Proof that he didn't, doesn't, really need to go down that road just because he isn't writing SF or fantasy.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:43 (four years ago) link

HOW WE GOT INSIPID one more time.

'Insipid Profession' stands up well as a combination of cute detective story (an obscure addition to the JL detective canon), art expertise (maybe taken too far - but there is a whole theme of visual art in JL that someone could write about), and Gothic / scary stuff.

'How We Got In Town And Out Again' has appeal in theory (SF, virtual reality, post-apocalyptic landscape) but feels maybe too inconsequential or uncompleted. The 16-year-old narrator lacks dynamism, insight, doesn't bring much life to the story.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:46 (four years ago) link

Idiot Tooth.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 25 September 2018 07:41 (four years ago) link

eleven months pass...

The trailer for MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN disappointed me.

I knew that the novel was being resituated in an earlier era, but the entire story seems to have been changed.

This seems a waste, given that the original story was tremendous, probably the best JL has ever come up with.

the pinefox, Thursday, 29 August 2019 07:33 (three years ago) link

two years pass...

6-minute film of Lethem on Lem, adapted from recent LRB article.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 09:21 (six months ago) link

This reminds me, should I read The Arrest?

Les hommes de bonbons (cryptosicko), Wednesday, 4 May 2022 14:31 (six months ago) link

It's not his best novel, but it's his most SF / speculative novel since CHRONIC CITY. If you happen to like Lethem then yes, worth a go: quite quick to read, with extremely short chapters.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 15:03 (six months ago) link

Love that. I've been reading Lem Two for the last few months.


change display name (Jordan), Wednesday, 4 May 2022 15:04 (six months ago) link

I've read Motherless Brooklyn (striking!) and You Don't Love Me Yet (can't remember). I think Brooklyn makes more lasting impressions.

youn, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 18:56 (six months ago) link

(but that may be the anonymity of globalized poverty safe culture)

youn, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 18:58 (six months ago) link

A novel that reminds me of Motherless Brooklyn is Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. A similar story about Los Angeles may have already been told, or I wish I could write it, but I haven't lived centrally enough and would probably need to go back in time a bit.

youn, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 19:02 (six months ago) link

notes found in a bathtub is a pretty good lem, super paranoid spy farce

Bongo Jongus, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 19:18 (six months ago) link

i actually started THE ARREST last week, and stopped when i realized that i just didn't want to learn any more about one particular character

there's nothing wrong with the book, though -- just a matter of personal preference

mookieproof, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 19:33 (six months ago) link

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