Jonathan Lethem: Pop Culture Truthteller or Gimmicky Stylist?

For some curious reason, Jessa seems more eager to link to Amazon titles rather than John Leonard’s “Welcome to New Dork” in the NYRoB, which has been online for a week. She suggests that she can’t get into Lethem’s fiction because “his metaphors kept getting in the way.”

I think that Ms. Crispin is being too unequivocal with Lethem’s work and should give the man another chance. While Lethem’s novels can be gimmicky, I consider him to be one of the most interesting fiction stylists working today, a conclusion that, admittedly, took me several books to figure out. Consider the many genres Lethem has worked in. Consider his use of language and his own determination never to write the same kind of novel twice. I haven’t read The Disappointment Artist yet, but I did read Lethem’s “The Beards” (an excerpt from the upcoming nonfiction book) in The New Yorker several weeks ago (unfortunately, not available online), a fascinating glimpse at how Lethem used pop culture to disguise his growing disconnectedness with the world when personal tragedies bogged down his life. And if we look at the McDonald’s in the middle of a dystopian future in Amnesia Moon, the White Castle burgers clutched onto as comfort food in the early moments of Motherless Brooklyn, or the comics and music in The Fortress of Solitude, we see a writer who willing to present pop culture as an elixir that can often be debilitating to existence.

This interesting dilemma in current novels, what indeed separates Lethem from a J-Franz gushing over Peanuts, is what Leonard singles out in his essay among current writers. But I think Leonard may be too hard on Lethem. Where other contemporary writers have used nostalgia as a way to throw in a cheap gag or to pad out a novel, I would suggest that Lethem is the only literary figure brave enough to recognize its potential as an imprisoner. Not even Paul Auster could do that when he summarized the plot of Out of the Past in Ghosts.

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