Monday, May 24, 2010

Top Ten Things Not to Say to a MacArthur Fellow

So I hijacked the New Yorker online today under my nom de plume Elizabeth Greenwood. Aw shit that's right! I am classing it up! An esteemed periodical like the New Yorker employs fancy editors who comb and massage your two bit hooker of an article into a coiffed and polished lady who lunches.

But we here at the equally urbane myinterestingandexcitinglife.blogspot.com give the people what they want! The dirt, the dreck, the juicy bits. So here's the biting journalism from the cutting room floor that didn't make it to the hallowed pages (er, screen) of the New Yorker...

First, the hard- nosed questions I posed to Mr. Lethem in our interview. A primer in literary muckraking:

1. How does my hair look?
2. What's the biggest word you can use to describe how my hair looks?
3. Is it too early to go to sleep?
4. Did you actually finish Infinite Jest?
5. Do you know anyone who has finished Infinite Jest?
6. Which Sex and the City girl are you?
7. Which Sex and the City girl am I?
8. How much is too much?
9. What is your spirit animal?
10. Do you want to see my tattoo?

Farewell to Chronic City

On a late afternoon in May at Brazenhead Books on the Upper East Side, the oracle of New York City, Jonathan Lethem, is holding his final class for his MFA students. In this intimate setting, he is saying goodbye to friends, students, and mentors as he gears up to move to Claremont, California to take over David Foster Wallace’s job. Brazenhead is the first in a series where the writer would work in his lifetime, from Brooklyn to Berkeley. It is where 14 year-old Lethem asked owner Michael Seidenberg to be paid in books instead of cash. These three small rooms become a setting in Chronic City three decades later. Lethem, now 46, is coming full circle, leaving New York to go West, as he did as a young man. But this time around, the books he earns will be his own.

After David Foster Wallace’s suicide two years ago, the Roy Disney Chair in Creative Writing at Pomona College, located 50 miles east of Los Angeles, remained vacant. Lethem, a writer synonymous with New York, accepted the offer to replace him. Because he is totally identified with this urban setting, his fans might see it as creative death to leave his context. He disagrees. “I take a lot of pleasure in New York but I’m always kind of here in my mind. In a way, I need to be dreaming my way back here. The longing and exile are part of my relationship to writing about this place,” he said.

Lethem was scouted for the position at Pomona over a year ago, but didn’t realize it at the time. “I have a wide- standing blind spot for academia,” he said. Not in the market for a permanent position, Lethem was enjoying adjunct teaching at NYU and Columbia, “parachuting in, in a guest star kind of way.” Stepping into the long shadow of the literary giant of a generation feels markedly different. “Dave Wallace had become a legendary teacher there. In the very place that he left a hot trail of teaching, I’ll be going and trying to pick up that trail. I just think it’s charged.”

Although Lethem and Wallace ran in the same literary circles, they never met face to face. Instead, they shared a long non- acquaintance. “We had indirect gestures in one another’s direction. He said some very nice things about my work and I returned the favor by plagiarizing him in [“the Ecstasy of Influence”] Harper’s.” The closest they ever came to meeting was when they were college students in the early ‘80s. A mutual friend at Amherst College told Lethem he should meet his friend Dave “who wants to write too.” Lethem, who describes himself at the beginning of his career as “poky in comparison,” watched Wallace catapult to critical and commercial fame. The eerie symmetry of their careers without intersection “makes it strange and ghostly and almost like a Henry James story of a mysterious great man whose footsteps you walk into,” says Lethem.

As a college drop- out with an honorary doctorate and a tenure track professorship, Lethem’s relationship with academia is complicated. “I was a sophomore on leave and still am,” he said. By his own admission, he was a terrible student. Teaching undergraduates gives him the opportunity to rectify aspects of his own experience. “It’s very glamorous to write and sit around a workshop table and congratulate and attack one another’s work, but reading is the ground of this activity.” His students will read Balzac and Gissing and Beattie, and even Wallace. “Everything,” he said.

In a recent conversation between Lethem and Patti Smith at Cooper Union, the singer told the audience that New York is over for aspiring artists, that they ought to “find a new city.” Lethem hesitates to agree, but sees the need to retreat for young writers, as he lived in Berkeley in his twenties: “There was something about working from the margin and not right under the shadow of the publishing industry. You should find a way to slow that down and dwell in your apprenticeship and take pleasure in being playful and unfinished while you can. And once you professionalize this activity, there’s no turning back.”

The change of scenery from brownstones and brick to palm trees and surf seems at odds with the stories Lethem writes. Just his name conjures images of lonely men trolling deserted streets by the Gowanus Canal. He documents a Brooklyn that is barely recognizable today. Still, given the new job and the temptations of the new environment, it’s easy to wonder if Lethem will go Hollywood, or at least California. He says, “The way people respond to this news is ‘Oh no, what will this do to your writing about New York?,’ as though I have to be on the streets. I wrote most of Fortress of Solitude when I was living in Toronto and most of Motherless Brooklyn at Yaddo.” He is plugging away on a book about Queens, which will keep him busy for the next few years in Claremont. Perhaps a pastoral setting might change the landscape of Lethem’s novels. “I don’t write about anything so directly as that,” he said.

Lethem’s New York will be right where he left it. Transcending the close associations with the five boroughs and taking on a job with such residual energy allows little room for complacency., “Jonathan works as if he weren’t a success,” Brazenhead Books proprietor Michael Seidenberg says. “He approaches reading and writing as he did when he was beginning. He lives the way we want to live- by getting better at it.” And New York might even be better for it.



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