Discovering Jonathan Lethem
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Genre-bender Jonathan Lethem (1964- ) grew up in a Brooklyn commune, the son of a political activist and an avant-garde painter.
As a young man, Lethem discovered the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. It was one of those transformative moments in the life of a book lover. In a now hard-to-find essay called “Crazy Friend,” Lethem explored Dick’s impact on his life, beginning with the copies of Ubik, A Maze of Death and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrith he found in a used bookstore:
“Reading these three novels, I made Dick definitely my own, forging a relationship into which I’d invest a tremendous amount of personal capital over the years, even decades, that followed.”
Lethem planned to travel to California to meet his idol, but Dick’s death in 1982 intervened. Still, upon dropping out of his Vermont college in 1984, Lethem hitchhiked cross-country to California. “Dick might be dead, but I could still make a pilgrimage to the Lucky Dog Pet Shop”—the shop where Dick claimed to have bought horse meat to eat when, as a struggling writer, that’s all he could afford.
In California, Lethem worked in a used bookshop and worked on his writing. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, is a science fiction detective story, often described in terms of its indebtedness to detective fiction great Raymond Chandler as well as to Dick.
In Lethem’s next few books, he continued to play with science fiction and its fusion with other genres: the post-apocalyptic Amnesia Moon (1995), the absurd As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and the Western Girl in Landscape (1998).
Moving back to Brooklyn in 1996 seemed to set Lethem on a new course. He began writing Motherless Brooklyn (1999), a detective story about a mobster who recruits from an orphanage.Though it leaves science fiction behind, Motherless Brooklyn drew Lethem further comparisons to Philip K. Dick, now for breaking the distinction between genre and literary fiction. As Albert Mobilio wrote in a New York Times review, “Taking his cue from writers like Don DeLillo and Philip K. Dick, who successfully blurred the lines between serious and popular novels, Lethem is like a kid in a candy store, grabbing all the tasty plots and gimmicks he can.”
Lethem has continued to grab tasty plots—and explore some gimmicks—in his subsequent novels, from The Fortress of Solitude (2003), an ambitious chronicle of childhood in 1970s Brooklyn, through to his most recent novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy (2016), which follows telepathic international backgammon player Bruno Alexander from Singapore to Berlin and finally to the Berkeley he had left long ago.
Throughout his career, as Lethem has experimented with novel genres and expanded beyond them, he has also been also been producing a steady stream of imaginative, wide-ranging short stories and essays.
The reading list below is an introduction, offering a mix of his writings in order of publication. Here’s to the possibility that discovering Lethem’s work will be, in some way, a transformative experience for you.
For those of you who were already Lethem fans, let us know: where on this list is the best place to start? What’s the best way into his writing? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Thanks.