This book takes as its starting point Lethem’s characteristic collisions and mutations of genres – detective fiction and science fiction; road narrative and science fiction; coming-of-age stories on extraterrestrial frontiers. It proceeds chronologically and takes as its main focus Lethem’s novels, with reference to related short stories. The chronological approach is appropriate because it shows how the bold, rather ostentatious genre clashes in early novels make way for more subtle genre mergings later on. It also indicates the shifts in tone and emphasis as Lethem moves from LA, where the early novels were written, to Brooklyn, his childhood home, and back again. The book analyses the specific purposes of Lethem’s genre experiments. Despite claiming in interview that he has never really grown up, and that he writes the way he does partly to make himself laugh, it is argued that he uses genre frameworks to question the organising principles through which individuals confront or avoid the complexities of their lives, principles which may require a reduction in freedom or individual self-expression. As such his subversion of genre is not simply postmodern game-playing, but in its own way politically motivated.
The introduction outlines the book’s main claim that genre is an ethical category in Lethem’s work. The author brings genres together to show what happens when people encounter difference in their lives and are forced to acknowledge arenas of experience other than their own familiar ones. Lethem’s use of the term “amnesia” – a wilful ignorance of others’ experience – is defined. Rick Altman’s theory of genre formation is used, along with Dick Hebdige’s classic work on subcultures and identity, and the introduction ends with an analysis of Lethem’s short story “Procedure in Plain Air.”
Science fiction meets detection in Gun, With Occasional Music
This chapter argues that Lethem’s debut novel, Gun, With Occasional Music brings together science fiction and detective fiction (or Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler) quite deliberately and ostentatiously in order to explore key ideas in his work – the role of technology, amnesia, and the loss of community. It ends with a discussion of the extent to which Lethem’s melding of genres might be called “postmodern” and suggests that the term “critical dystopia” is an appropriate one for this and other Lethem novels.
Chapter 2 argues that in Lethem’s work one of the reactions to collective or individual traumatic experience is a retreat into a kind of exaggerated localism, into miniature utopias that attempt to ignore what is happening in the wider world. Amnesia Moon, which brings together science fiction and the road narrative, exemplifies this retreat in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world that has been divided up into FSRs, or Finite Subjective Realities, small spheres of activity controlled by individual dreamers. The end of the chapter argues that the very explicit influence of Philip K. Dick in Lethem’s second novel is a means of “letting in” another author into the literary FSR created by Jonathan Lethem. Thus literary influence has an ethical function.
Lethem’s third novel is a campus comedy, but is yet again inflected with science fiction. The chapter argues that the campus comedy is an ideal genre for exploring Lethem’s concerns because it has long been concerned with closed worlds, disciplinarity and isolation. At the heart of As She Climbed Across the Table is “Lack,” a hole in the fabric of the universe formed after a failed physics experiment. The hole is a surreal concrete metaphor for a recurring theme in Lethem’s work – lack or traumatic loss. The various characters in the novel, it is argued, frantically try to compensate for their lack of understanding of “Lack” by attempting to claim it for their disciplines, and by using language to explain and therefore own it. In the end, the chapter states, this novel is chiefly concerned with the inescapability and inefficacy of language as a compensation for loss.
Lethem attributes the relative lack of success of his fourth novel partly to the fact that it is set mostly on another planet. Yet it is also his most autobiographical novel, dealing as it does with the death of the protagonist’s mother in circumstances very similar to the author’s childhood in Brooklyn. This chapter argues that Girl in Landscape demonstrates two ways of approaching trauma: directly and in almost documentary detail, and by “hiding in plain sight”; that is, taking loss and transporting it to outlandish metaphorical levels. Brooklyn here gets transplanted to another planet and becomes a symbolic landscape of mourning for Pella Marsh, the protagonist. In its tale of interplanetary homesteaders and their relationship with the indigenous inhabitants of the planet, Girl in Landscape is an example of a science-fictional regionalism.
The narrator of Motherless Brooklyn, Lionel Essrog, is an orphan detective with Tourette’s syndrome. He makes it clear that his tics and verbal utterances are partly a means of placating, of smoothing the world’s rough edges, but when he finds the world already too smooth, they have a disrupting intent. This chapter explores the close connection between Lionel’s condition and his native Brooklyn, a place of street talk which is prone to eruptions of the past into the present and Tourettic outbursts. It argues that the danger of Lionel’s mapping of his condition onto his small area of Brooklyn is that it results in a kind of arrested development; by always having his condition comfortingly reflected back at him, Lionel cannot find a way to break free of the past and move on.
Graffiti, writing and coming-of-age in The Fortress of Solitude
This chapter uses graffiti as a means to explore the issues of race, coming-of-age and gentrification in The Fortress of Solitude. Protagonist Dylan Ebdus sees graffiti as an “authentic” part of the old neighbourhood, Gowanus, before it is transformed into Boerum Hill. It is one of the chief things which binds him to his black childhood friend, Mingus Rude. But as the two boys grow up and drift apart, it also stands for their irrevocable difference. Later, Dylan uses graffiti culture, as well as soul music and comics, as a method of remediation, a way of revisiting and trying to come to terms with his overwhelming childhood and adolescent experiences.
Reality and secrecy in You Don’t Love Me Yet and Chronic City
Both these novels, this chapter argues, are concerned with secrecy and reality in a world increasingly dominated by disclosure and virtuality. You Don’t Love Me Yet is a rock and roll novel, and romanticises music as something secretive, in the sense of possessing an intangible something beyond language’s power to describe. The irony, of course, is that Lethem attempts to do just that. Chronic City takes place in a Manhattan the characters see as maximally unreal. Through drugs and conversations about obscure cultural phenomena, they attempt to get at the elusive, secretive “real” behind the simulations. Ultimately, the chapter argues, this real can be found in the physical, natural world – in childbirth, in the companionship of a dog, in a flock of birds.
The conclusion returns to some of the themes of the introduction, including genre and ethics. It suggests that Lethem, while attempting to make a mockery of convenient labels, might be regarded as post-postmodern. Post-postmodernism involves, among other things, a return to humanist questions, a renewed interest in characters’ biographies, less metafictional game playing than high, experimental postmodernist texts, and an interest in the post- or trans-human. Acknowledging that the only thing one can predict about Lethem’s future work is its unpredictability, the conclusion finishes with an analysis of Lethem’s book on John Carpenter’s They Live. Despite its playfulness, it is consistent with the themes and the manipulation of genre seen in his novels and short stories.