Building My Own Strange Machines: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem and Christopher Boucher

May 15, 2017 | 15 books mentioned 14 min read

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Time flies. Six years ago Jonathan Lethem published The Ecstasy of Influence, a sprawling collection of essays, sketches, interviews, and fiction, knitted together with candid autobiographical notes. Since then, he’s brought out his ninth and 10th novels — Dissident Gardens and A Gambler’s Anatomy — as well as a story collection, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, and apen monograph on the album Fear of Music. A new year, another book. More Alive and Less Lonely collects literary essays, introductions and book reviews from the last 20-plus years. The book was edited — or curated, rather — for Melville House by Christopher Boucher, whose two novels (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Golden Delicious), as I recently read them, significantly altered my perception of language in fiction, reminding me of when I first encountered Lionel Essrog, the compulsively lyrical narrator of Lethem’s now classic New York crime novel, Motherless Brooklyn.

In the spirit of generosity and of abundance, both author and editor agreed to participate in a roundtable conducted recently over several days of emails. Unlike in the humorous essay “The Counter-Roth” included in the new book, which details Lethem’s attempts to entertain Philip Roth at literary functions, I made it clear up front I had abandoned any hope of making either of these writers laugh.

The Millions: This collection caught me completely by surprise, even though I’m an avid reader of Jonathan’s work and previously hunted down several of these pieces online. The editor’s introduction states that a framework and coherence were evident early on among the 60 or so short essays in this book. Were there other breakthroughs later in the process?

Christopher Boucher: It’s fun to think back to the very beginnings of the process, when Jonathan started sending me contenders for the collection. I’d loved The Ecstasy of Influence, and so these uncollected essays seemed like a gift — my own “lonely book” (see “The Loneliest Book I’ve Read”), if you will.

As I remember it, we came to the idea of a “book on books” early on — during our first meeting at Melville House. I was thrilled with this direction, because that was the book I wanted to read. As a diehard fan of Jonathan’s fiction, I gravitated towards his essays on books and literature — I found them addictive, sneakily-instructive, and full of the same joyful inquiry and insight that’s so prevalent in Ecstasy. What’s more, these essays made me want to read — to drop everything and read for days. I liked the idea of trying to create the same experience for the reader — to curate a book that served as a readerly “wake-up call.”

That said, though, we left a lot of wonderful material out. Along the way, too, I found myself lobbying for a rather broad definition of “books and writers” so that we could include as many essays as possible. I remember really wanting to include Jonathan’s fictional exchange between his character Perkus Tooth and director Spike Jonze (“The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head”), for example. While it’s unlike anything else in the book, it’s just so poignant and funny.

covercovercoverJonathan Lethem: For me, the image of this book emerged in the negative space described by my two earlier essay collections — The Disappointment Artist, and The Ecstasy of Influence. The first one, Disappointment Artist, is really a memoir of my teenage life and self-invention as a writer, disguised as a cycle of cultural essays. It’s about losing my mother and understanding my relationship to my father and concealing my vulnerabilities behind movies and pop music and books. The form is exclusive and everything I wrote in that mode is included in that short book (arguably, the Cassavetes piece doesn’t really belong). Ecstasy of Influence is a baggy monster, full of writing in different modes, and on different occasions. There’s even fiction in there, and a poem. It’s a deliberate — and obnoxious, I’m sure — attempt to measure the space I’d blundered into as a “public intellectual,” which wasn’t a plan I’d had for myself. It’s modeled, for better and worse, on Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself.

What was excluded from those collections created the possibility that became More Alive and Less Lonely. I’d written more often on books and writers than on any other topic, in the form of reviews and introductions, largely. And “appreciations.” Writing about books was the first thing I did besides writing fiction, and the first thing I published in any venue (in the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, when I was 22). I reviewed a few books for Salon in the mid-’90s — one of those earliest examples is included here, on Jill Robinson’s Past Forgetting. And the first book I was ever asked to introduce was Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird. That’s here too. It’s really the heart of my activities, the center of my life, as a reader, bookseller, and “author.” It’s a book of devotions, basically.

TM: Were there specific collections (by other writers) that occurred to either of you during this process?

JL: By way of comparison, I thought mostly of books by British writers — things like Anthony Burgess’s Homage to Qwert Yuiop, or Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Afterlife — books that are full of things like introductions and “appreciations.” I think the ways my bookishness manifests itself are more like a U.K. writer than like an American one, honestly.

But I didn’t shove any of these comparisons at Chris. I preferred to let him find the form and the tone, and to do all the heavy lifting here. I really let him wade through the morass — and there was more ass than you’d think. He covered it, for the most part.

TM: I’m curious, how were the pieces received? How many at a time? Over what period of time? Were there any changes or cuts made to specific essays, or other issues or obstacles that came up in bringing this work into book form?

coverCB: Conversations about this project began in December of 2015, when a mutual friend put Jonathan and me in contact by email. Jonathan sent me 60 or so pieces to review, and we met to discuss the project in early 2016. It was during that meeting that we first talked about the idea of a “book on books.” With a preliminary theme in mind, I dug in and started looking for threads in the essays that could inform their sequencing and the book’s scope and shape. These pieces were published at different times and in a variety of venues, so our reader was going to have do some time travel. And I didn’t want them to feel “unstuck,” or mapless. So I searched for ways for the book to stake out its range and territory early on — that was certainly my goal in the first chapter, “Engulf and Devour,” which shifts from a “devotion” on a book from Jonathan’s childhood to pieces on Moby-Dick and Philip Roth.

Later in the book, the essays focus in on specific writers (Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick), link thematically (as in the last chapter, “Fan Mail”), or connect via what I think of as “channels” — inquiries or enthusiasms that reappear in different garb. I love the various forms of nostalgia expressed in the chapter “It Can Still Take Me There,” for example — there’s a piece on the character of Batman, and further on, an essay about Jonathan’s encounter with the beat hero Herbert Huncke.

As the book took shape, Jonathan sent along other pieces that might fit. To my delight, he also wrote some new essays that helped round out the chapters and complete some of the narratives therein. One of my favorite pieces in the book, for example, is his “Footnote on Thomas Berger,” a new piece that follows two previously-published essays on Berger. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an astounding story.

Editorially, most of the heavy lifting took place last summer. Since most of these pieces were previously published, I saw my work as a sort of literary forensics: I read the manuscript version against the published version, and sent Jonathan edits that catalogued all editorial discrepancies and suggested a way forward. I sent these to Jonathan in batches of 10 or so and he returned finalized versions. Overall, my edits were modest — these essays were already in fighting shape. We settled on a preliminary structure and title by July, and the manuscript was submitted a few weeks later.

JL: I’m fighting the temptation to satirize Chris’s scrupulous account of all his due diligence with claims of my having handled the perimeter defense, or being the one in charge of bringing the ziplock bags of trail mix. “First I built a bonfire hot enough to melt down the horse’s hooves,” etc. But the truth is that I did nothing so comprehensive or thoughtful even as that. I really just dumped that initial catastrophe’s worth of pieces on Chris, by means of Dropbox. Then, to make matters worse, I sporadically discovered pieces I’d missed or forgotten about entirely that were hiding either in dingy corners of the Internet or of my own hard-drive, and sent those along as well.

As Chris began to settle on pieces — which didn’t happen all at once, but in sequences — I periodically flew into a panic of rewriting. I think I did a bit more “improving” — or at least triage — on these clumsy old sentences than Chris shows signs of being aware of. Mostly I tried to simplify tormented thoughts into merely agitated ones.

I really like hearing about Chris’s concerns about the risk of “maplessness” and the way he thought of his solution in terms of “channels.” I find the design and flow he arrived at consistently surprising and delightful, nothing I’d have managed myself. That feeling extends to the title of the various sections, and the title of the book itself, which are all Chris’s discoveries.

TM: Readers now can go over the trail themselves to find a discarded ziplock, map in hand. The Hawkman trail? To borrow language describing two kinds of Pynchon novels (in the essay “Pychonopolis”) this new collection teeters between Comparatively Stable and Utterly Centrifugal. Not because it is chaotic but because there is narrative drive and so many plot threads. The time-travel aspect, far from disorienting, is gratifying. What was lived, and sometimes suffered through, for decades, we see transpire in a few pages. I’m wondering if Jonathan’s attitude toward collaboration has changed at all since the famous Harper’s essay and his “Promiscuous” Internet project, where material he authored was made available for filmmakers and music bands?

JL: Well, I’m in no way repentant, if that’s what you mean. All of my impulses — my yearnings — are still in the direction of a gift economy.  It seems even more urgent to me now, more bound up in our political lives, all this stuff: acknowledging intertextuality, breaking the spell of “property” over our expressive cultural lives, find ways to reclaim a commons or create a “temporary autonomous zone” wherever possible. Locating versions of mutual aid for artists and artworks. Distinguishing corporatist imperatives from life imperatives. Not that I have some coherent political plan on offer!

The Promiscuous Materials site is in disrepair — I need to rework it, and freshen it up, make it inviting again. I’m not web-savvy that way, and there are only so many hours in the day. Still, people still do find their way to those stories and texts and song lyrics and make their own things out of them from time to time. I’m glad about that. I should say that it wasn’t some major experiment, I don’t make any such claim for it. The project was more a gesture — a mild provocation, combined with a sort of playground. Like a community garden in a vacant lot.

My main job is writing novels, and as I get older I know I’ve got to exclude a lot of other involvements. Too often that means missing chances to collaborate, and locking myself in my room. But I’m still really dedicated to breaking down the dull imperial notion of the novelist-as-Prometheus. Finding ways to introduce apertures or slippages in the mask of authority — both inside the text, and around it.

CB: My response here skims the surface of your question, Chris, but for me this project has been wholly defined by Jonathan’s generosity. After the briefest of introductions in late 2015, Jonathan invited me to help steer this ship; I’ll always be grateful for, and amazed by, the trust he showed in me from the get-go. Received en masse as they were, too, these essays felt very much like “uncommodifiable surpluses of inspiration” — like gifts, in other words.

This seems like a good time, too, to note that Jonathan’s donating all of his earnings from the book, and that half the proceeds are going to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Jonathan included this proviso in the initial book proposal, and I think it set the tone for the entire project. While I know I’m speaking of a different currency now than the one that drives the gift-economy, the creation of this book was certainly driven by a “Give All” sensibility.

coverTM: That kind of generosity is inspiring. Now pet theories are kicking around in my mind. Did the choice of Doctors Without Borders have anything to do with the list of doctors acknowledged in last year’s A Gambler’s Anatomy and the convincing, or convincingly imagined, medical research involved in that book, or does the association go back further?

JL: I’m sure it would be easy to overthink it. The fact is that I’ve always just been astonishingly moved by what they do. Which is no knock on, say, The Southern Poverty Law Center, or The Center for Biological Diversity, or many other possible destinations. But you have to pick one. Doctors Without Borders might seem to me — I’ve never thought about this, exactly, before — like the ultimate opposite of the kind of indirect politics practiced even by the most righteous of us artists and writers (I don’t mean myself). That’s to say, where we’re by definition operating in the realm of the figurative and the intangible, in my case also the hesitant and ambiguous. While they are literally rushing bodily into zones of violence and crisis and putting bandages on other human bodies. So it was the least I could do. Let’s leave it at that.

Oh, but I should confess here that the doctors acknowledged in A Gambler’s Anatomy aren’t all doctors! By the time my list of acknowledgees had four or five doctors on it, it seemed fair — I mean, it seemed funny — to award the same title to Chris Offutt, and to my wife. Doctors of my spirit, and doctors to my book.

coverTM: The acknowledgments reminded me of the dedication, also funny, in Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show. A list of radio hosts and their stations — Jean Shepherd; WOR…etc — ending with Joan Elkin; WIFE. I guess compared with the earlier discussion of a cultural commons, I was struck in this new collection by more traditional roles of authorship, for the reader respecting what great authors do on their terms. Which of course is a different matter, although I admit conflating them a little. One of my favorite pieces is the essay on Joseph McElroy. It does a great job anticipating a reader’s objections while full-throatedly supporting a big league writer’s craft. Are there some artists that, more than others, represent some kind of line or limit? With McElroy, “narrative ‘sense'” sums it up. Have you experienced any conversions during your reading lives? This essay does much toward recruiting me to the McElroy camp.

JL: Elkin’s WIFE, I’d forgotten that. Genius — I wouldn’t try to compete. But my own wife regards my honorary doctorates as embarrassing jokes, so I took my revenge by awarding her a bogus one too.

As for the opposition you suggest between “authors doing things on their terms” and the cultural commons, I’d say nah. My whole point, if I had one, was that to wade into the cultural commons was my description of what authors do when authors do what they do — on their terms. Anyway that’s how it feels to me. Whether conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious of the fact, we’re all intertextually polymorphous-perverse in the end. As Dr. George Harrison wrote, “text goes on within you and without you.”

coverI’m glad I rallied your curiosity about McElroy — he’ll gratify it (though, honestly, I probably wouldn’t pick up Ancient History as an entry point. Try Lookout Cartridge first.) But since I’ve gotten started picking apart premises lurking in your questions, let me do it again, and protest the terms “big-league,” “conversion” and “recruit.” Because I know McElroy is generally associated with “difficulty,” and so what I hear in those words of yours is a kind of reader’s hierarchy of striving, as if reading him or someone like him is a matter of stepping up to some higher realm or duty. I’m not into it. Too much Protestant work ethic in there, and status-seeking, and a hair shirt too. Read hedonistically instead. McElroy offers a delicious blast of oxygen — it’s fun to be in his brain, that’s the reason to go there. I mean, if it turns you on to think of your reading of great novels, whether canonical or modernist or postmodernist or translated or just loooong, as some kind of sacrificial devotional act or military campaign or mountain-climbing expedition, go ahead. But admit that that’s what turns you on! Life’s too short to be intimidated by the books that are waiting only to be picked up and encountered, and then devoured, if you like what’s on offer — it’s like being intimidated by food.

coverCB: I’ll resist the urge to go literal here and steer us towards the last piece in the book, “Books Are Sandwiches,” and say instead that I love this answer because it reminds me, as a reader, to eat what I like and all that I can — to follow my instincts without regard for anything that might obstruct my engagement with the page. Some of my favorite moments in the book, too, are those when Jonathan finds vitality in places I wouldn’t have known to look for it — when he hails Chester Brown as a “a citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul,” for example, or sees in the work of Gilbert Sorrentino “a mind whose only way of handling a first introduction is to blurt out ‘Don’t we know one another already?’”, or praises Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments as “an object in furious motion, humming with its own energy, and all you might wish to do is touch it, alter its trajectory barely, so as to nudge it into universal view.”

TM: One other term that probably does more to activate a reader’s resistance, if the book doesn’t conform to the reader’s preconceived notion of said term, is novel. It’s understood that this is the reader’s problem, the reader’s loss. Although, also it’s a cultural loss if the book or author goes out of print, which lends an urgency to what’s said about the lesser-read authors praised in this book and elsewhere. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan calls the dip in John Barth “terrifying.” This collection nonetheless concerns novels, second only to the unmitigated joy of reading anything. It’s largely a novelist’s bag of novels and novelists. What draws you to writing novels?

covercoverCB: What I love about the novel, both as a writer and a reader, is that it lives with you for a while, imprints itself on you. The novels that first invited me to write one, though, were particularly strange machines: The Age of Wire and String, for example,and Trout Fishing in America. I remember well the experience of reading the latter for the first time, and how the world continued buzzing for me even when I wasn’t reading it; it felt like having a pair of anti-gravity boots stowed away in my backpack. No other object has informed my life quite like my favorite novels have.

From a craft perspective, the novel caters to the kinds of risks that I like to take in my writing. Because of my early influences, perhaps, I’m drawn to building my own strange machines. Also, I don’t think novelistically, as I know some writers do. I have to think small, write small, and I only find my novels once I’m inside them. I began my second book, for example, with one stand-alone piece about a piano that changes your point of view, and another about a character who has a sentence for a pet. It wasn’t until a year later, maybe, that I admitted to myself that these should be part of the same narrative. At the core of my process is a certain unease or anxiety about the form, and I’m glad for that — I think it’s a good place to write from.

Even so, I marvel at those writers who seem to have an easier relationship with the form. Jonathan’s one of my favorite living novelists, and for me his novels are built like tanks — each one different from the last, and yet always dizzyingly inventive, uniquely ambitious, and expertly constructed.  Reading A Gambler’s Anatomy, for example, I was amazed by its grand design — the way that the narrative arc, pacing, and sentence-level music all work together. I’m curious to hear what he has to say about a form to which he clearly brings such mastery.

JL: “A novelist’s bag of novels and novelists” — you make it sound like a sack of cats! Yet one also being carried around by another, larger cat. Or a smaller one who is struggling with a very large sack.

Well, I doubt I could write a more impassioned love letter to the novel than Chris B. has done here, so instead I’ll play the feisty elder, and remind you young whippersnappers what Norman Mailer said when someone played devil’s advocate about the viability of his chosen form (some of which devil’s advocacy I think I hear in your question). I quote: “The novel will be at your funeral!”

Maybe me and Boucher have our heads too far up the wazoo of the novel to realize that the world has moved on to other, better things…the human attention span having suffered irreparable damage,,,I doubt it…but even if so, it has been a pretty good place to spend my life. What I really think is this: the novel is the least airless, the least restrictive, the least solipsistic of wazoos to have climbed up. It is a wazoo with a view.

Okay, to be a bit more serious, I really have come to understand that the humbling mystery of my chosen practice is how capacious the damn thing is. It holds together impossible things (like life itself). It even makes room for the anti-novel — for those always turn out to be novels, too. It models human consciousness in any number of ways — by its involvement simultaneously in narrative and language and also sensation, dreaming and projection and fear, and with our feeling of duration — time, that is.  It concerns itself with concurrence of being-in-our-heads (that’s the siren call of solipsism) and being-in-the-herd (the basic fact that we’re social creatures, wandering among others every day of our lives). The two are simultaneous immersions, never resolving their permanent juxtaposition. The novel actually captures this! How incredible. And even the shortest and simplest novel is oceanic, confusing, too big to get your head around, or see all at once (again, like life).

Anyway, this here bag of cats — it’s got other things in it, I swear. There’s my mother-in-law, in the “Footnote to Berger.” She’s no novelist! There are cameos by any number of others — painters, poets, children, and teenaged pre-novelist me. It’s less lonely because it’s fungible to human beings. As are novels. Whereas bags of cats are just — well, cats, all the way down.

is a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, who now lives on Long Island. His essays have also appeared on Full Stop.

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