Zip It!

Jonathan Lethem mouths off about Motherless Brooklyn

Jonathan Lethem may be a Brooklynite to the core, but stylistically he's all over the map. The hero of his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is Lionel Essrog, a detective suffering from Tourette's syndrome who struggles to unravel both a murder mystery and the deeper mysteries of his own psyche. Like a gumshoe himself, Lethem has gone under cover as a writer of science fiction (Girl in Landscape and Amnesia Moon), a hard-boiled crime novelist (Gun, With Occasional Music), and a campus satirist in the vein of Don DeLillo (As She Climbed Across the Table). He doesn't so much write within genres as eviscerate them, and while one might have a hard time deciding where to shelve his books, it's not hard to be won over by the singularity of his vision.

In a fall 1999 interview with's Ryan Boudinot, Lethem revealed that one of the hardest parts about writing his latest book was getting his narrator to shut his mouth. I read that the advice you like to give other writers is to indulge yourself in the first draft and work against yourself in the subsequent ones. How did you indulge yourself in Motherless Brooklyn and what did you work against?

Jonathan Lethem: Well, in some ways the book was a really exaggerated version of that advice. It's something I kind of dared myself to do--a velocity exercise where the voice is the driving engine. I had always had these characters who were babblers, but I'd kept them on the margins or slipped them onstage for comic relief here and there. I wanted to see what would happen if I let that classic, babbling character come front and center and just take over a book--let everything be mediated through that manic, verbal energy. Was it liberating?


It was really exciting. I wrote it fairly quickly, and it was a thrilling voice, because it gave me permission to go to a lot of places where I hadn't gone before. But the challenge was stopping scenes. There's that classic anecdote about John Coltrane: when he first started doing his 20-minute saxophone solos in Miles Davis's band, Miles Davis would get annoyed with him and Coltrane would say, "I can't stop." Davis's retort was, "Well just take the horn out of your damn mouth." At times I felt as if the mystery plot really took a back seat to Lionel's riffing. At one point he even reveals that constantly thinking about Tourette's syndrome is in itself a symptom of Tourette's. I was impressed by how this allowed you to indulge in a little self-reflexivity while avoiding the kind of metafictional baggage that oftentimes goes along with it.

Lethem: Well in some ways the disease gave me the opportunity to domesticate reflexivity and give it a reason for being, so it was always anchored to personality and plot, instead of just floating alongside the book. It's as though Lionel found that kind of metafictional navel-gazing necessary in order to present himself to the reader. I hope, if I got away with it, that it feels like that stuff is as integral as any other part of the book. Over the course of six books you've managed to cover a lot of thematic territory in a short period of time. How do you manage to keep one from bleeding over too much into the next?


Often my next book or next story is a kind of antidote to the last one, and at this point I think I've strictly alternated first-person and third-person books, somber books and giddy books. I don't want to suggest that I get exhausted or disgusted with the work I've just done, but I'm often yearning for another type of fictional space by the time I'm done with something.

If you've conceived books that stand on completely different ground, then the reverberations become a kind of excitement that can either be your secret or can be something that readers who know your work well will sometimes get off on. Italo Calvino once remarked that when he wrote something fantastical, he yearned for realism, but whenever he wrote something that was too realist, he started yearning for the fantastic again. I see a similar dynamic in your work.

Lethem: Well it's a terrific quote and I identify with it enormously. I think my method in my earlier fiction was most often to conceive the most ludicrous version of reality and then try to ground it in many gritty and psychologically acute kinds of details and textures. Then, if I got away with it, if it worked, you would be persuaded against your own instincts that this might be an authentic reality. What about in Motherless Brooklyn ?

Lethem: I might have come through the back door a little more, created a ground that's more realistic and then pushed from within the realism toward the absurd. Not that there's anything plausible about an orphanage in Brooklyn in the 1970s leading to this group of gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight mobsters who are deluded about the fact that they're a detective agency. It's not actually very realistic. Well I bought it!

Lethem: [laughs ] It's funny accepting these congratulations for having finally written a book that's set in the here and now when there are many fundamentally ludicrous things about its conception. I wonder if Motherless Brooklyn will put to rest the science fiction writer tag that's pigeonholed you.


I write what I write, and I'm happy to let people make whatever identifications they want. And it's still fascinating to me, but I feel like I'm almost a veteran of the genre wars, and I'm never going to wade back into battle again. Genre distinctions can be pretty arbitrary.

Lethem: It's pretty clear to me that the harder you look at these definitions, the less they mean. I used to tussle against these identifications, and in many ways that was on behalf of future work. When I wrote Amnesia Moon , it looked to some people like I was settling more into science fiction. I guess my resistance at that point was very much on behalf of unborn books like Motherless Brooklyn that I knew weren't going to make sense to anyone if I was locked down in that genre. I think those battles are behind me, but if this book were overwhelmingly received as a crime novel--which it is in many ways--I would be stuck having to fight another battle on behalf of the next one, which isn't going to be a crime novel at all. Are you working on it already?

Lethem: I'm just getting started, and I can't say very much about it, but it's set in Brooklyn again. And it's going to go much deeper into the social texture of Brooklyn in the '70s. I think it'll be a bigger book: it will be longer and it's going to take me longer to write. I ran a spell-check in my e-mail program on your last name and I came up with some suggested alternatives--lithium , lethal , lathe , lithe , and lather . Care to comment on the significance or insignificance of this?

Lethem: [laughs ] I grew up with Lethal as my nickname, and it's a useful word because I'm always having to correct people on the pronunciation of my last name, which is Leethem ; but a lot of people reach for Leh-them first. So when I'm trying to burn it into people's brains so that they'll never mispronounce it again, I say, "like lethal."