Posts Tagged ‘jonathan lethem’
This, then, is the concept:
Deep Focus is a series of film books with a fresh approach. Take the smartest, liveliest writers in contemporary letters and let them loose on the most vital and popular corners of cinema history.
And first off the blocks we have Jonathan Lethem writing about They Live, “John Carpenter’s 1988 classic amalgam of deliberate B-movie, sci-fi, horror, anti-Yuppie agitprop.” It is an unusual book, a flicker book of thoughts that often reads more like an extended blog post than a conventional work of criticism, despite rather grandly opening with the claim that this is “the first monograph” on the film. Lethem acknowledges Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look At Psycho as an aspiration but at the same time makes clear he lacks the space and skill required for such a project.
The book opens with five epigrams. Then five introductions. Then dozens of short chapters of only a couple of pages or so. These chapters are split between scene-by-scene dissections of the film and digressions on mood, theme, symbolism and anything else that pops into Lethem’s head. In his second introduction, Lethem notes that They Live is “howlingly blatant and obvious on many levels” yet “marvellously slippery and paradoxical”. I watched the film on Saturday night and it really is a deliberate B-movie, a bizarre collision of high and low art of the type you just don’t see any more in mainstream American cinema (Darren Aaronofsky’s Black Swan is the only recent example I can think of). Lethem deftly unpicks these contradictions and establishes Carpenter as a sort of gutter auteur.
Lethem is usually good and always readable, only occasionally collapsing into self-congatulatory praise for suriving his umpteen re-watches or going slightly stir-crazy from his intense focus. After commenting perceptively on the “bifurcation” of the film – not just high/low but, let’s be honest, the good first half and the bad second half – he closes the chapter by saying: “Or is it something between the two? Am I hedging here? Sure I am!” He is talking to the walls here.
Perhaps, though, Lethem never betters the concision of his very first page where, after a brilliantly brisk synopsis, he notes the two totemic sequences of the film that ensure its continued appeal:
One, when the wrestler first dons the sunglasses and, exiting an alley, walks through a city revealed. Ten minutes of cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema, shot partly in black-and-white, and composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick.
Two, a fistfight in the same alley: crass, bruising farce stetched to an absurd limit, wagering the film’s whole stakes decisively on a pop-culture/”termite art” bet.
He concludes with another five quotes, a grading (B+) and – as if his thoughts hadn’t wandered freely enough – a selection of notes on his notes. That probbaly sums up exactly what Deep focus where after and, while none of the forthcoming titles (Death Wish, The Sting and Lethal Weapon) grab me in the same way as this book, I will definitely be keeping an eye on the series.
Poor Stuart Evers, his article on Jonathan Lethem’s eclecticism has been burdened by the subs with a heading which I’m sure he wouldn’t agree with: “Jonathan Lethem’s output is impressively diverse, but it’s not going to win him a dedicated readership”. I would argue that Lethem’s diverse output is exactly what has won him a dedicated readership. I’m sure Evers would be sympathetic to that view but he doesn’t do himself any favours:
When asked at last week’s reading at the London Review Bookshop about the wildly different nature of his work, and whether this was a help or a hindrance to his work, Lethem was wholly positive about his polyglot sensibilities… Creatively speaking, his argument was both logical and sure-footed: after all, no one would deny writers the absolute right to choose the subject and style of their work. But such diversity is not perhaps the best way to endear yourself to a readership, or to receive a consistent critical reception.
He doesn’t provide much evidence for this, apart from the mixed reception to You Don’t Love Me Yet. Also, although I’m pleased he is drawing attention to authors who plough their own furrow, I’m not sure it is that rare or noteworthy. Lethem’s progression from science fiction novelist to receiving widespread acclaim outside the genre is certainly unusual but moving between genres and styles is not. Consider Peter Carey: in the last ten years we have had a pastiche of Dickens, a retelling of the story of Ned Kelly in dialect, a fictional take on the Ern Malley hoax, a volume of travel writing on Japan, a Transpacific love story set in the modern art world and a look at Sixities counterculture politics. This is not atypical (although I will admit that I am an atypical reader in that I am particularly drawn to this sort of writer).
Evers talks about a publishing industry “obsessed with creating brands” but Lethem is his own brand and the same is true of other major literary writers like Carey. I would suggest it is unlikely that when they turn in their latest offering that there is “some grumbling from the sales department eager to sell in another fantasy-crime novel featuring a returning character”. They are different products for different markets. Evers view only makes sense from within a narrow slice of comercial publishing. It is easy to internalise some of the bad news messages of the industry but I think things are a lot more positive than people sometimes make out. In the oppostie direction, Evers overstates his case for the uniqueness of the books the writers he champions produce:
And while for the vast majority these are thematically, geographically, stylistically or generically linked to each other, for the few – the brilliant, yet perpetually overlooked Chris Paling and the incredible but under-championed Nicholson Baker for example – such similarities are much harder to tease out.
I’ve not read Paling but it isn’t that hard to see similarities in Baker’s work; between The Mezzanine and Room Temperature or between Vox and Checkpoint. Similarly I’ve recently been reading Lethem’s ‘Hardened Criminals’ (1996) and there are clear links to his later novels like Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and The Fortress of Solitude (2003). In fact, part of the joy with an eclectic writer is finding the links.
Despite quibbling with Evers about the number of Lethem-like authors who already exist I would still like to see more of them, particularly coming – like him – from within science fiction. Regardless of current gloom about the publishing industry I retain a naive optimism that the good will out and, given the increased permeability between science fiction and mainstream literature in the last decade, I do think we will be seeing more of these sort of writers in the future.
As well as becoming one of my favourite novelists, Patrick Ness is rapidly becoming one of my favourite reviewers. It helps that the Guardian usually send him exactly the sort of book I’m interested in. This month it is Chronic City by Jonathen Lethem:
Let me say here that I have no idea whether Lethem lights up himself, but without even considering the possibility, I’d already thought the sparkiness of earlier work such as Gun, With Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn had gone strangely awol in Lethem’s last two novels, the wide-ranging but frequently dull The Fortress of Solitude and the misfiring romantic comedy You Don’t Love Me Yet. Chronic City is better than both of those, but it’s still sometimes a struggle to see through the sheer haze of pot smoke.
I was surprised that I liked You Don’t Love Me Yet as much as I did but, like Ness, I have found his recent work less satisfying then his earlier work and I was not looking forward to Chronic City with any sense of anticipation. Frankly, it sounds like a mess and the bits that sound good have already been published:
Take Janice’s letters to Chase. Popping up every hundred pages or so, they’re just brilliant… The letters, in fact, are so compelling, they were a standalone short story in the New Yorker last year called “Lostronaut”. And “Lostronaut”, I think, is the Chronic City that might have been; everything Jonathan Lethem is capable of: compellingly odd beauty, a fresh turn of phrase (those “dry little feet”) and a concise, downbeat narrative arc, all delivering insight and emotional impact.
Elsewhere in the paper, Nicholas Lezard makes The Rapture by Liz Jensen his paperback choice:
Thrillers, alas, do not need to be well-written to succeed. (You could tell The Da Vinci Code was garbage from its very first word. But it was still a success.) So when an entertainment is, at the level of the sentence, up to the mark of respectable literary fiction then the entertainment is all the better – and all the more convincing: good prose is, or can feel like, a guarantor of truth, which makes The Rapture a peculiarly unnerving book, and all the more timely for coming in the wake of the failed negotiations of Copenhagen.
My review will be published by Strange Horizons the week after next and yes, it is pretty good. (I did raise an eyebrow at this line from Lezard’s review: “after all, we have been reading about screwed-up weather at least since Martin Amis wrote London Fields“.)
The Millions have helpfully put together an annotated list of all the fiction that appeared in the New Yorker last year. It includes stories by three writers I admire a lot:
Wolff is one of my favourite short story writers but really this is just a vignette. He still manages to conjure up a lot from very little though; a callow youth awake next to his sleeping girlfriend in the middle fo the night, picking at the scabs of his own self-doubt whilst at the same time inadvertantly revealing even more about his character.
This is a very slowly told and gentle story. Burnside’s style is always somewhat detached – even in his superb memoir, A Lie About My Father – but usually it has a greater sense of immediacy and it is frequently punctuated by violence. Here the story resolutely mirrors its quiet, isolated setting as it describes a woman struggling with her desire for something other than her life.
Both the above stories could be considered typical New Yorker fare. Lethem’s science fiction story of an astronaut trapped in orbit is different but shares the same atmosphere of muted despair. Presented as a series of letters to a lover on Earth it chronicles life in the remorseless face of entropy.
All three have written better but they are worth checking out and the list is definitely worth a perusal.
This is the other story in the collection that I had already read and again I was surprised by its inclusion in Feeling Very Strange. It was originally published in 1995, considerably pre-dating Motherless Brooklyn (1999), his first work of straight realism, and Fortress Of Solitude (2003), his fictionalised auto-biography. It is with these works – with their focus on the real world and, particularly, Lethem’s New York – that the story has most affinity but it lacks any of the ambiguity that tipped Fortress Of Solitude into slipstream.
At its most basic it is the story of two brothers and a drug deal. However, it also contains a race of aliens called Sufferers:
“Of course its weird,” said Don. “That’s why we love it, right, Paul? It’s from another dimension, it’s fucking weird, it’s science fiction.”
It isn’t that weird though. In the story the Sufferers are treated like something like crack or guns, not exactly quotidian but hardly alien either. Like Chiang’s God the Sufferers are inexplicable but whereas in his story that was the whole point in Lethem’s story it is just a distraction. The real story is the story of the two brothers and, as with Fortress Of Solitude, this is weakened by the fantastical elements. This isn’t feeling very strange, it is feeling like you have a pebble in your shoe.
Christopher Peditto filmed ‘Light And The Sufferer’ in 2004 but it has sat on the shelf since then. It was finally released at the beginning of this month (presumably Paul Dano’s rising star helped with this.)