Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Storyteller at the Fire

An interview with Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is the author of eleven novels, five short story collections, and several nonfiction books, for which he has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is presently the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he teaches creative writing and literature.

Outside the academic year, Lethem lives in Maine, a place that has always drawn artists and writers to its pristine landscape, including Lethem’s artist father, who eventually sold his Brooklyn brownstone and bought a farmhouse there. So began the chain migration for Lethem himself.

A little over ten acres of forest and fields surround Lethem’s humble antique farmhouse in Blue Hill. Inside, a warren of rooms and slanted, shifty floors hold the history of its previous owners, whom Lethem respects by not doing too much modernization to the house’s overall design. His fridge is stuffed with vegetables he gets from local farmers, whose antecedents are Helen and Scott Nearing, the radical socialists who moved to Maine in the ’50s and fostered a “back-to-the-land experiment” based on a pacifist, vegetarian, environmentalist creed.

Lethem’s thoughtful recognition of his house’s history, the homesteading in the form of organic lettuce he’ll eat for dinner, the Nearings’ advocacy for sustainable living, and the fierce independence he encounters every day in Maine also form the nuggets of his book, The Arrest (Ecco, 11/10/2020).


KA: Do you feel there’s a connection between California and Maine, the two landscapes in which you live?

JL: They are incommensurable worlds, and it fascinates me that I am, just even within myself, translating one to the other. When I get to show a friend from California this place, or the reverse, I’m unfolding different peculiar, paradoxical aspects of my experience and myself, of the simultaneity of different realms, different realities.

KA: I ask about these landscapes because you said you have climate change on your mind. What does that mean?

JL: We’re collectively experiencing it becoming a manifest and tangible consciously acknowledged thing, individually and collectively, which makes us realize how much it’s been a subliminal fact, subject to denial and suppression, even within our individual experience and consciousness. But measuring that emergent feeling is really intense. It’s intense if you have children. One of the really glib jokes you could make about my double life is that it’s like a climate hack; you could see me as like some sort of superprivileged climate operator. I have eighty-degree Januarys and eighty-degree Augusts. My farmer friends Phil and Debra are very voluble. They’re just constantly talking about what’s happening in their garden, and putting that aside, just holding a house together up here through the different kinds of tests this landscape puts to an old house.

KA: That this house was built for a certain climate and now the climate’s changing?

JL: The summer here is measured in a clock of insects: When do the blackflies die? How many ticks are there? It’s changing every year. It’s so material, and everyone up here has attested to it in the simplest possible way.

KA: I’ve seen mosquitoes arrive earlier and lilacs bloom earlier . . .

JL: And strawberries are two weeks late. I listen to the sump pump go off, it’s right underneath my desk, where I write. So I’m not in a J. G. Ballard, sky-rise tower, where it’s like, “Reports are coming in, the world is ending!” I’m in this physical experience. I get on a rider mower and I go around, and — oh that vernal pool is sucking my rider mower in it now, it didn’t used to do that. I’m not making any big claims, I’m a lightweight. I mostly let other people take care of this land, this house for me, because I’m stuck far away from it. I feel I’m so bogus even making these claims to you. The intimacy with which people live in this landscape is, well, I’m a relative tourist.

KA: You’re just reflecting some of their intimacy.

JL: Anyone here knows in their bodies things are changing, and yet some of the same people who I could be in a conversation with about, like, “You should have seen the winters when I was a kid,” those same people might say to me, “I don’t know what all this climate talk is about.” There is a psychic and conceptual and political sense of remove and skepticism.

KA: When you wrote Girl in Landscape in 1998, you were writing about climate change, so it’s not a new topic — but at that point, the general public saw climate change as something way out there on the horizon of events.

JL: It was science fiction.

KA: So we are in an age where science fiction and reality meet?

JL: In the scene that opens that book, the mother takes her children to a beach and has to talk to them about the sun being the enemy, and they have to be in tents the entire time that they’re at the beach. And no one goes to the beach because it’s just too much work to be protected.

KA: Exactly what’s happening!

JL: It’s kind of what we’re in. But I had this fund of images I’d grown up reading — J. G. Ballard and John Brunner and Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin and Thomas Disch. I think of these, in particular, in regard to global and environmental change, possibilities of altered physical relationships to the natural world. And even just something as simple as extinctions in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, that people are nostalgic for animals. Reading all that stuff made me unusually ready to look at what’s happening. It’s a great mental apparatus for now.

KA: What is the responsibility of writers now?

JL: The energy in writing and art is more eccentric, intimate, individual, uncontrollable. Even if we put it to use, it’s somehow innately grounded in the childlike fascination with making things that have no clear purpose or value. And, of course, right now in an urgently anticapitalist moment, objects that are not utilitarian and that resist commodification are emblematic of something that we’re hungry for.

Yes we’re damaging our environment. And I’ve grown up as a hippie child. I grew up inside the ecology movement. I used to have the old ecology symbol sticker on my lunch box in grade school. And there are things about beauty, placidity, flow, integrity of the natural environment that can beguile one into thinking of the human as the chaotic disrupter and the natural surroundings as some sort of balanced, otherwise balanced thing. And that is an understandable error, but it is a grave error. The world — even if we were somehow to exempt ourselves from it, be removed by a magic marker, eraser, or Gandalf waves his staff around — it is a place of chaotic disruptions, flows, and changeability. And anyway, we’re a feature of it and not a disease that has landed from elsewhere.

KA: In other words, we aren’t a goiter in the system.

JL: There was, I think, a sentimental image, that as much as I identify with the ecology movement, that was very characteristic of the ecology movement as I felt it, or understood it, growing up inside it in the ’70s. Which is this sentimental image of nature as a kind of delicately balanced system that we need to stop messing with. Obviously we’re doing all kinds of fucked-up shit, but we’re doing it within, and to, and inside a system of chaos and oppositional forces and transformations. It’s a philosophical conceit that Earth is in balance.

Summer here is measured in a clock of insects: When do the blackflies die? How many ticks are there?

This was really very similar to the insight that helped me crack the code on my tormented feelings about gentrification when I was growing up in a neighborhood that had been called Gowanus and was now being called Boerum Hill, by people who were redecorating old, beautiful brownstones that had fallen into disrepair. And I felt that there was some simple opposition that I was being asked to choose sides in. My parents in a sense cultivated the idea that there were the renovators who were bad, and there was the neighborhood, which was good. But again, there was a sentimental opposition of a chaotic force and a balanced faux natural backdrop. And in fact, it’s very patronizing to look at the neighborhood as some sort of natural, balanced force that got ruptured. It was always an urban landscape with conflictual histories, multiple claims, multiple stakeholders, and stories within it. Encountering it means encountering its chaos and juxtaposition.

KA: So there was a perceived balance.

JL: Perceived is the key term. We see that kind of fantasy operating right now with “Make America Great Again.” Like there’s a back to go to that made sense, and where all claimants would agree it was just and comfortable. I remember the 1960s; the first years I remember are ’68 and ’69, and I really identified with a kind of paisley, Aquarian-era thing. But I was also critical of the hippies, my parents, from the very beginning, and I suspected them of having made some simplifications of a richer, more complex world that preceded them. Even though the story seemed to be: the fifties are boring and black-and-white and kind of . . .

KA: Oz?

JL: Like Oz, like suddenly we go to Oz and it’s color and it’s amazing and everything changes. The Beatles came. There was something in me that was really fascinated with the world that my parents had left behind without a glance. And of course, I explored this first in its countercultural version: the Beat Generation, Lenny Bruce records, film noir. The complexity, the darkness, the richness of the pre-hippie culture really captivated me when I was a kid. I used to get into arguments with my mother when I was a kid because I wanted to listen to the Beatles before Sgt. Pepper’s, and she always wanted to play Magical Mystery Tour and Abbey Road. And I was interested in what they were like before their hair was so long, and photographs of them were black-and-white. The tension of the ’50s and the very early ’60s became the locus. And that’s actually where some of this writing that I identified with the most [comes from], like Philip K. Dick.

KA: There were a lot of secrets then too.

JL: And how many kinds of turmoil were clamped down under that ostensible thing that was supposed to be an oasis, that white, suburban, middle-class experience of the ’50s? All of this really called to me, because it made the world that made my parents. The greatest mysteries in our lives sometimes are, What was it like before I was born? It’s the world that your parents are the least curious about, because they took it for granted and then they made their world. So my parents made the late ’60s and the ’70s, and they were like, Forget the ’50s and 1961, 1962, Cuban missile crisis, it was a drag!

KA: Have you interviewed your parents about that?

JL: I’ve had the chance with my father more. My mother was very expressive, and I rely on the memories of those conversations with her. I also grew up as a leftist, but a very peculiar kind, because the New Left of the ’60s was grounded in a kind of unspoken, hidden narrative. An uncomfortable narrative of the American communist movement and its collapse under McCarthyism. And so my parents, who were activists and leftists in many regards, had no overt theoretical Marxist affiliation. Because that legacy was covered in confusion and shame and turmoil and embarrassment. My grandmother was of that generation; she was an overt American communist, and had been tormented into silence by the Stalin-Hitler Pact. She was made to feel that she’d made a dangerous mistake.

KA: Again, as we were talking about earlier, it’s that fallacy that America was great in that era. Then there was always the industrial complex and U.S. manufacturing we thought were also great . . .

JL: The ravenousness of the American expansion is the model for rapacious capitalism. But one of the forms of technological expansion and economic expansion was the creation of this unholy alliance between research and development and technology and making useless nihilistic weapons. A single technology, in its fabulous uselessness — the bomb — can just destroy an island and poison an entire landscape, and everyone who even saw it blow up will die of cancer ten years later. Think about that as an ecological object.

KA: The chemicals too that were the byproduct of their research.

JL: And we had to invent an international political reality to find buyers for all the shit we were making, because we made too much of it for ourselves. The making of it, to begin with, is such an unbelievable act of technological nihilism. This is where I circle back to science fiction: it invites you to pretend to be the Martian looking at the earth. So, the Martian arrives in 1954, ’55, and sees us, unsatisfied that we have enough nuclear material to destroy the world.

KA: And the Martian is like, “Why do you keep making it?”

JL: “We need better delivery systems and more of it!”

KA: What would Martians say today?

JL: It’s such a mad fantasy. What would they say today? Raising children at this moment puts you in that position. In a sense, they are the Martians, and you are the ones having to indoctrinate them into the taking for granted. Are you going to raise them to be alienated from everything they see around them? Or are you going to help them integrate into some kind of unholy compromise with the mad nature of this existence?

KA: You see parents trying to alienate their kids from everything.

JL: It’s not simple . . .

KA: Are you sneezing or crying?

JL: Both. My twelve-year-old wanted to watch the Democratic debates last night and was trying to listen to the terms of that conversation. Trying to figure it out. It’s just . . . you could just be heartbroken forever with the ingenuous attempt to accept this world. It’s easy for them to see that Trump is a fatuous child, and so then they want to invest in an alternative, and the different forms of intricate self-deception and compromise are just rhetorical, horseshit on the menu.

KA: That’s your kids. Then there’s other kids brought up by people who believe in this man.

JL: There’s only one word for this, and it’s a Marxist word: it’s ideology.

KA: But Trump has no ideology.

JL: In some ways, he’s the end of ideology. I was reading a good book, Down to Earth, by the French critic Bruno Latour. It’s about the politics of climate change, but in passing, the thing you reminded me of, was that he talks about — it’s not even cynicism in a way, it’s a stoppage of the political in Trumpism. It’s just the thing that happens when at some level, everyone knows that the game is over. He compares it to a horse that has been running and dealing with different obstacles and then just comes to a wall and stops. That’s the American story right now. The horse is just standing at the wall.

The collective apprehension of the earth has begun to stop us from believing in any coherent future. And if there is an adequate politics to that collective understanding, it certainly hasn’t been invented yet, and it isn’t even being attempted. Ideologies shouldn’t be left unpressured. I’ve written a book —

KA: The one you’re writing now?

JL: The one I’m writing now. It’s kind of a post-collapse book, about a moment when a lot of technological stuff just stops working. The digital is erased; it just stops being possible, and also at the same time, gasoline and armaments don’t work anymore. Not a dystopian collapse, it’s a kind of puzzling atopic, atopian collapse, where people have to figure out what to do.

KA: Without the digital, without fossil fuels.

JL: What it does is impose extreme locality on people. Suddenly all of this remoteness disappears, all of this mediation. I can’t email you from far away, I can’t get to you from far away, I can only deal with the people right in front of me. I’m on my email every five seconds, constantly mediated. And also, everything I love: film noir, the books; it’s media. And I also fly on airplanes to have my two worlds. In fact, the love in my life is long distance right now; I’m depending on the airplane to have the thing that nurtures me most intimately. So, it’s the collapse of all kinds of things simultaneously.

KA: Localness is starting to happen again.

JL: There’s this yearning for it, and people are trying to enact it. There’s experiments with it, and yet they’re ambivalent. The same people who are really into it, the next thing they do is close down the house, pay their caretaker to make sure the pipes don’t freeze, and fly to California. What if suddenly you were really only in your new local fantasy? Like Esther Wood’s, where you had to get on a sled behind a horse to get the two miles back to town.

What will you do after the apocalypse? I’ll be the storyteller at the fire. How many of those do you need?

KA: Or to Deer Isle.

JL: Deer Isle was another world. Deer Isle was a place you might visit twice a year, or only hear of. So my character is kind of a hack screenwriter. A very degraded emblem of this world that you and I care about so much. He’s a product of it, and he loves stories, and he values stories. And now he, by chance, is in a place, something kind of like East Blue Hill, when this moment comes, he’s away from his Hollywood life. His sister is an organic farmer, so he ends up spending today and tomorrow and the rest of his life, post-collapse, in the atopic new world. And not only are there no movies for him to write any more, you can’t even watch the old ones, and none of the people who he used to make movies or talk about movies with are kind of around him particularly.

What will you do after the apocalypse? I’ll be the storyteller at the fire. Well, how many of those do you need? And in my book, he starts to think, maybe it’s zero.

KA: You need somebody who can fix a house.

JL: Or be willing to clean out the compost toilet. You really don’t need the storyteller — or maybe you need him like, every fifth Wednesday, around the fire. So that’s one thought. The next thought, which is the place I tried to push this book: What if the person the storyteller most resembles, despite being a perfectly harmless guy — what if the thing he most resembles in this new world is the problem? The past fantasies of growth and power and individual self-fulfillment? What if all the things a storyteller has been enmeshed in his entire life now really look kind of suspect and shitty? What if they are only really an inch away from “Make America Great Again”? What if it’s all complicit? What if even my ideas — dissident, anarchic, ideology-undermining narratives — are still complicit?

America is a story, technology is a story, growth is a story, capitalism is a story — they’re the stories that are killing us right now.

KA: Stories can be dangerous.

JL: They are the stories that are killing us. Slavoj Žižek has this joke where he says, “I walk around the world talking about the idea that capitalism could end and I find that people can’t have the conversation with me. It’s actually easier to get into a conversation about people with a comet coming and destroying all of life on Earth than it is to get them into a conversation about capitalism ending.”

KA: Do you think that’s especially true in America?

JL: Elizabeth Warren said, “I am a capitalist to my bones.” This bogeyman of communism — we’re still in the 1950s. We fantasized communism as this evil that was coming to get us, and the only answer was our model of the Ayn Rand, self-actualizing, capitalist-free market, where everyone is free because there is growth and industry and money and competition and dog eat dog. That story is the planetary nightmare we’re living.

KA: Does your book offer any modest proposals?

JL: I am thinking about the book needing a kind of author’s note at the end, acknowledging it’s not a utopia. A utopia proposes a new and perfect world. Like any science fiction novel, it’s just a thought machine. It’s a reframing mechanism that I tried to set in motion, to see how long it can run, and what kinds of visions it can belch out before it suffers the inevitable collapse of its contradictions.

One of the first things that it turned out to want to do was to say, Maybe stories are the problem. Even though I’m a storyteller, and my character is a kind of a storyteller — maybe the story is the whole problem.

KA: Like what Joan Didion said . . .

JL: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” O


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