Jonathan Lethem is lashing out at pro-realist critics like James Wood in a fascinating Morning News interview, and I’ve got to jump into the middle of this fray.
The fashionable postmodernist speaks strong words, according to the account by Morning News writer Robert Birnbaum. Lethem answers recent criticism of his writing style by positing himself as a target of oppressive, wealthy literary purists:
“Look, let me be brutal. When you encounter the argument that there is a hierarchy where certain kinds of literary operations — which we’ll call ‘realism,’ for want of a handier term, though I’ll insist on the scare quotes — represent the only authentic and esteemed tradition, well, it’s a load of horseshit. When you see or hear that kind of hierarchy being proposed, it’s not a literary-critical operation. It’s a class operation. In that system of allusions, of unspoken castes and quarantines, mimetic fiction is associated with propriety, with the status quo defending itself, anxiously, against incursions from the great and wooly Beyond. When ‘realism’ is esteemed over other kinds of literary methods, you’re no longer in a literary-critical conversation; you’ve entered a displaced conversation about class. About the need for the Brahmin to keep an Untouchable well-marked and in close proximity, in order to confirm his role as Brahmin.“
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Things are not that simple, and I can’t believe anybody’s letting him get away with this. I don’t think Lethem’s words are brutal, but they are unfair and probably slanderous, since there’s no evidence Lethem’s critics are any more Brahmin than he is. Lethem is waxing like Robespierre all of a sudden, but the pose doesn’t work, and the logical conclusion of Lethem’s theory is that we must each like magical realism or else we are corrupt.
I don’t know if Lethem means us to take his charge of cultural oppression seriously or not. Maybe critic James Wood is a fascist snob, but I really doubt it. Lethem talks in this interview about his affection for the New York Mets, and in fact the tactic he’s using against Woods and the Woods ilk is the same tactic Mets fans use against Yankees fans — they’re elitist uptown snobs, and we’re the salt of the earth. Yeah, sure. If Lethem’s just speaking trash talk at Wood here (and that’s what I think is going on), he should be more careful not to be misunderstood.
Now, on to the meat of the matter. Okay, so Lethem takes a lot of flack from pro-realists who despise his playful use of genre conventions, and these pro-realists must all be colonialist racist hypocrites. Well, Jonathan, what about me? I love it when postmodernists subvert genre conventions, and in fact this describes one of my favorite novels in the world, Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which you obviously read before creating Motherless Brooklyn. City of Glass is a dizzying, gloriously impossible metaphysical pseudo-mystery that leaves a reader emotionally spent and intellectually exhilirated.
Motherless Brooklyn, on the other hand, is a pleasant, cute crime drama that feels phony and leaves a reader pondering what to eat for dinner.
Lethem speaks of his own work in grandiose terms:
“When you look at Motherless Brooklyn, the language, the Tourette’s, is the fantastic element. In that book the linguistic distortion, the metaphor, runs amok as if a dream of language has broken out in a typical hardboiled detective novel.“
Sure, that’s exactly how I felt when I read City of Glass. Just for the record, I do like Jonathan Lethem’s work. I even got all the way through Motherless Brooklyn, which is more than I do with 9 out of 10 books I pick up. But I always found him derivative (cf. The Invention of Solitude, 1988, Paul Auster; The Fortress of Solitude, 2003, Jonathan Lethem) and lacking in power — a mannerist, a Yaddo familiar — Kafka without the harrow, DeLillo without the noise.
Maybe his future books will prove Jonathan Lethem to be a groundbreaking literary figure, but I don’t see him anywhere near that pantheon yet. I also wish he’d stop name-checking Brooklyn and the New York Mets. I know the territory between the Gowanus Canal and Flushing Creek as well as Lethem does, and like 50 Cent says about Ja Rule, I never heard anybody say they liked him in the hood.
Finally, as the photo accompanying this interview proves, the guy needs to stop going to Donald Trump’s barber.