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Discovering Jonathan Lethem

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.

Gun, with Occasional Music

Gun, with Occasional Music is a science-fiction mystery, a dark and funny post-modern romp. Conrad Metcalf has problems. He has a monkey on his back, a rabbit in his waiting room, and a trigger-happy kangaroo on his tail. (Maybe evolution therapy is not such a good idea). He's been shadowing Celeste, the wife of an Oakland urologist. Maybe falling in love with her a little at the same time. When the doctor turns up dead, Metcalf finds himself caught in a crossfire between the boys from the Inquisitor's Office and gangsters who operate out of the back room of the Fickle Muse.

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As She Climbed Across the Table

What if your lover left you for nothing? Literally Nothing? As She Climbed Across the Table is a strange, hilarious love story about a man, a woman, and the space between them. Physicist Alice Coombs has made a great discovery—a hole in the universe, a true nothingness she and her colleagues call 'Lack'. Professor Philip Engstrand has made his own breakthrough—he realises how much he loves Alice. Trouble is, Lack is a void with a personality—a void that utterly obsesses Philip's beloved. She's fallen out of love with Philip and in love with Lack.

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Motherless Brooklyn

Lionel Essrog, a.k.a. the Human Freakshow, is a victim of Tourette's syndrome (an uncontrollable urge to shout out nonsense, touch every surface in reach, rearrange objects). Local tough guy Frank Minna hires the adolescent Lionel and three other orphans from St Vincent's Home for Boys and grooms them to become the Minna Men, a fly-by-night detective-agency-cum-limo-service. Then one terrible day Frank is murdered, and Lionel must become a real detective. With crackling dialogue, a dazzling evocation of place, and a plot which mimics Tourette's itself in its freshness and capacity to shock, Motherless Brooklyn is funny, tense, touching, and extravagant.

Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

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The Fortress of Solitude

From the funked-up, messed-up Brookyn of the 1970s to the present day, The Fortress of Solitude spans thirty years in the life of two best friends, Dylan and Mingus, their families, and an entire neighbourhood. From their stories comes the history of soul music, of graffiti art, of comic books, of experimental film, and 'rock writing'. With a cast of more than a hundred characters and more than fifty speaking parts, this is a touching and intimate novel on an epic scale.

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The Disappointment Artist

A mixture of personal memory and cultural commentary, The Disappointment Artist offers windows onto the collisions of art, landscape, and personal history that formed Jonathan Lethem's richly imaginative perspective on life at the end of the twentieth century. Lethem illuminates the process by which a child invents himself as a writer, and as a human being, through a series of approaches to the culture around him. 

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You Don't Love Me Yet

Lucinda Hoekke works at The Complaint Line, listening to anonymous callers air their random grievances. She becomes captivated by the ruminations of one particular caller, and they fall desperately in love. Lucinda also plays bass in a struggling band whose lyricist, Bedwin, is suffering from writer's block, and whose lead singer, Matthew, has kidnapped a kangaroo from the local zoo. Hoping to re-charge the band's creative energy, Lucinda 'suggests' some of The Complainer's philosophical musings to Bedwin, who transforms them into brilliant songs—with disastrous consequences. You Don’t Love Me Yet is a comedy of plagiarism, usurpation, and sex, with delightful echoes of Jane Austen's Emma.

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Chronic City

Chase Insteadman is a handsome, inoffensive former child-star, living a vague routine of dinner parties and glamorous engagements on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Meanwhile, his astronaut fiancée, trapped on the International Space Station, sends him rapturous love letters. Like Janice, Chase is adrift. Into Chase's life enters Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop-critic, whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers and a desperate ache for meaning. Together, Chase and Perkus attempt to unearth the Truth—that rarest of artifacts on an island where everything can be bought. At once beautiful and tawdry, poignant and funny, Chronic City is, like every Lethem novel, utterly unique.

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Dissident Gardens

In 1955, Rose Zimmer got screwed. It wasn't the first time, and it wasn't the last. In fact, Rose—like all American Communists—got screwed by the entire twentieth century. She doesn't take it lying down. For over forty years she pounds the streets of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, terrorising the neighbourhood, and her family, with the implacability of her beliefs, the sheer force of her grudge. And the generations that follow Rose will not easily escape her influence, her ire, her radicalism. This is a radical family epic, and an alternative view of the American twentieth century.

Dissident Gardens was Longlisted for both the 2015 Folio Prize and the 2015 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

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Lucky Alan

A father tries to stave off a nervous breakdown when a family trip to SeaWorld shades into the sinister; a porn critic discovers that, despite his best intentions, his reputation—not to mention the stacks of smut lining his apartment—precedes him; an out-of-work avant-garde stage director begins to test his limits in the theater of life; desperate forgotten comic book characters find themselves suddenly stranded on a desert island.

Throughout Lucky Alan and Other Stories, Lethem transforms the real into the surreal, uncovering the absurdity always lurking in the mundane, the twin forces of humor and tragedy that bracket experience, and the lasting desire—even in the face of all that goes awry—for human connection.

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A Gambler's Anatomy

Alexander Bruno is a man with expensive problems. Sporting a tuxedo and trotting the globe, he has spent his adult life as a professional gambler. His particular line of work: backgammon, at which he extracts large sums of money from men who think they can challenge his peerless acumen. In Singapore, his luck turned. Maybe it had something to do with the Blot - a black spot which has emerged to distort Bruno's vision. It's not showing any signs of going away. There's a surgeon who can help, an elite specialist, the only one in the world. But surgery is going to involve a lot of money, and worse: returning home.

A Gambler’s Anatomy was a New York Times top 100 Notable Book of the Year.

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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.

Katie is a reader, editor and note taker who works as a Content Writer at Bookwitty. Originally from Wisconsin, she's at home in Dublin.