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Jonathan Allen Lethem (born February 19, 1964) is an American writer. Born in Brooklynmarker, New Yorkmarker, Lethem trained to be an artist before moving to Californiamarker and devoting his time to writing. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a genre work that mixed elements of science fiction and detective fiction, was published in 1994. It was followed by three more science fiction novels. In 1999, Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel that achieved mainstream success. In 2003, he published The Fortress of Solitude, which became a New York Times Best Seller. Lethem is also a prolific essayist and short story writer.

Biography

Early life

Lethem was born in Brooklynmarker, New Yorkmarker to Richard Brown Lethem, an avant-garde painter, and Judith Lethem, a political activist. He was the eldest of three children; his brother, Blake, is an artist, and his sister, Mara, is a photographer and writer. Jonathan was raised in a commune in the pre-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill. Despite a pervasive feeling of racial tension, he later described his Bohemian childhood as “thrilling” and culturally wide-reaching; he gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the music of Bob Dylan, saw Star Wars twenty-one times during its original theatrical release, and read the complete works of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Lethem later called Dick’s work “as formative an influence as marijuana or punk rock—as equally responsible for beautifully fucking up my life, for bending it irreversibly along a course I still travel.”

His parents divorced when Lethem was young. When he was thirteen, his mother Judith died from a malignant brain tumor, an experience he has said haunted him and heavily affected his writing. In 2007, Lethem explained that "My books all have this giant, howling missing [center]—language has disappeared, or someone has vanished, or memory has gone." Intending to become a visual artist like his father, Lethem attended the High School of Music & Artmarker, where he painted in a style he describes as "glib, show-offy, usually cartoonish." At Music & Art he produced his own zine, The Literary Exchange, that featured artwork and writing, created animated films, and wrote a 125-page unpublished novel, Heroes.

After graduating from high school, Lethem entered Bennington College in Vermontmarker in 1982 as a prospective art student. At Bennington, Lethem experienced an “overwhelming....collision with the realities of class—my parents’ bohemian milieu had kept me from understanding, even a little, that we were poor....at Bennington that was all demolished by an encounter with the fact of real privilege.” This, coupled with a growing realization that he was more interested in writing than art, led Lethem to drop out halfway through his sophomore year. He hitchhiked from Denvermarker, Coloradomarker to Berkeleymarker, Californiamarker in 1984, “a thousand miles of desert and mountains through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, with about 40 dollars in my pocket," describing it as "one of the stupidest and most memorable things I've ever done." He lived in California for twelve years, working as a clerk in used bookstores and writing in his own time. Lethem published his first short story in 1989 and published several more in the early 1990s.

First novels

Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, is a merging of science fiction and the Chandleresque detective story which includes talking kangaroos, radical futuristic versions of the drug scene, and cryogenic prisons. The novel was published in 1994 by Harcourt Brace, in what Lethem later described as a "delirious" experience. "I'd pictured my first novels being published as paperback originals,” he recalled, "and instead a prestigious house was doing the book in cloth....I was in heaven." The novel was released to little initial fanfare, but an enthusiastic review in Newsweek, which declared Gun an "audaciously assured first novel," catapulted the book to wider commercial success. Gun, with Occasional Music was a finalist for the 1994 Nebula Award, and placed first in the "Best First Novel" category of the 1995 Locus Magazine reader's poll. In the mid-1990s, film producer-director Alan J. Pakula optioned the novel's movie rights, which allowed Lethem to quit working in bookstores and devote his time to writing.

He followed Gun, with Occasional Music in 1995 with his second novel. Partially inspired by Lethem's experiences hitchhiking cross-country, Amnesia Moon uses a road narrative to explore a multi-post-apocalyptic future landscape rife with perception tricks. After publishing many of his early stories in a 1996 collection (The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye), Lethem's third novel, As She Climbed Across the Table, was published in 1997. The novel takes as its starting point a physics researcher who falls in love with an artificially generated spatial anomaly called "Lack", for whom she spurns her previous partner. Her ex-partner's comic struggle with this rejection, and with the anomaly constitute the majority of the narrative.

In 1996, Lethem moved from the San Francisco Bay Areamarker back to Brooklyn. His next book, published after his return to Brooklyn, was Girl in Landscape. In the novel, a young girl must endure puberty while also having to face a strange and new world populated by aliens known as Archbuilders. Girl in Landscape's plot and characters, including the figures of a young girl and a violently protective father figure, were "very strongly influenced" by the 1956 John Wayne Western The Searchers, a movie with which Lethem is "obsessed."

Mainstream success and "genre bending"

The first novel Lethem began after returning to New York City was Motherless Brooklyn, a return to the detective theme, this time maintaining objective realism while exploring subjective alterity through Lionel Essrog, a protagonist with Tourette syndrome who is obsessed with language. Lethem later called Essrog "obviously the character I’ve written with whom I most identify," and explained that the novel "stands outside myself....It’s the only one which doesn’t need me, never did. It would have found someone to write it, by necessity." Upon its publication in 1999, Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, The Macallan Gold Dagger for crime fiction, and the Salon Book Award, and was named book of the year by Esquire. In 1999, Edward Norton announced that he was planning to write, direct and star in a film adaptation of the novel; in March 2007, Norton said he was still working on the screenplay.

The mainstream success of Motherless Brooklyn made Lethem, according to The New York Times, "something of a hipster celebrity," and he was referred to several times as a "genre bender." Critics cited Lethem's various novels, which were alternately hardboiled detective fiction, science fiction, and autobiographical. (Lethem credited his comfort in genre-mixing to his father's art, which "always combined observed and imagined reality on the same canvas, very naturally, very un-self-consciously.") In Time magazine, Lev Grossman classed Lethem with a movement of authors similarly eager to blend literary and popular writing, including Michael Chabon (with whom Lethem is friends), Margaret Atwood, and Susanna Clarke.

In 2003, Lethem definitively described his opinion of his supposed "genre bending":

The fact is, I used to get very involved, six or seven years ago, and before that, in questions of taxonomy of genre, and in the idea—which is ultimately a political idea—that a given writer, perhaps me, could in some objective way alter or reorganize the boundaries between genres....Nowadays, I've come to feel that talking about categories, about 'high' and 'low', about genre and their boundaries and the blurring of those boundaries, all consists only of an elaborate way to avoid actually discussing what moves and interests me about books—my own, and others'.
What I like are books in their homely actuality—the insides of the books, the mysterious movements of characters and situations and the emotions that accompany those movements.
The play of sentences, their infinite variety.


In the early 2000s, Lethem published a story collection, edited two anthologies, wrote magazine pieces, and published the 55-page novella This Shape We're In in 2000. This Shape We're In was one of the first offerings from McSweeney's Books, the publishing imprint that arose from Dave Eggers's McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

In November 2000, Lethem said that he was working on an uncharacteristically "big sprawling" novel, about a child who grows up to be a rock journalist. The novel was published in 2003, as The Fortress of Solitude. The semi-autobiographical bildungsroman features dozens of characters in a variety of milieus, but centers on a tale of racial tensions and boyhood in Brooklynmarker during the late 1970s. The main characters are two friends of different backgrounds who grew up on the same block in Boerum Hill. It was named one of nine "Editor's Choice" books of the year by The New York Times and has been published in fifteen languages.

His second collection of short fiction, Men and Cartoons, was published in late 2004. In March 2005, The Disappointment Artist, his first collection of essays, was released. On September 20, 2005, Lethem received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Recent work

In September 2006, Lethem wrote the article, "The Genius of Bob Dylan", a lengthy interview with Bob Dylan, which was published in Rolling Stone magazine; the interview contained Lethem's reflections on Dylan's artistic achievements, as well as revealing Dylan's dissatisfaction with contemporary recording techniques and his thoughts on his own status.

After Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem decided that "[i]t was time to leave Brooklyn in a literary sense anyway….I really needed to defy all that stuff about place and memory." In 2007, he returned to the setting of Californiamarker, where some of his earlier fiction took place, with You Don't Love Me Yet, a novel about an upstart rock band. The novel revolves around a woman in the band, Lucinda, who answers phones for her friend's complaint line and uses some of a caller's words as lyrics. According to Lethem, You Don't Love Me Yet was inspired by the years he spent as the lead singer in an upstart California band in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during what he called "the unformed posturing phase of life." The novel received mixed reviews.

In 2005, Lethem had announced that he was planning to revive the Marvel Comics character Omega the Unknown in a ten-issue series to be published in 2006. After hearing of the project, Omega co-creator Steve Gerber expressed personal outrage over the use of the character without his participation, though he later discussed the project with Lethem and admitted that he had "misjudged" him. In May 2006, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada explained that the series had been delayed to 2007, saying that "winning the Macarthur Grant put additional and unexpected demands on [Lethem's] time." The revamped Omega the Unknown series was published in ten monthly issues from October 2007 to July 2008; the issues were published in a single volume in October 2008.

In early 2007, Lethem began work on Chronic City, which was published on October 13, 2009. In July 2008, Lethem said that Chronic City is "set on the Upper East Sidemarker of Manhattanmarker, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles G. Finney and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange."

Personal life

In 1987, Lethem married the writer and artist Shelley Jackson; they were divorced by 1997. In 2000, he married Julia Rosenberg, a Canadian film executive, though they divorced two years later. Lethem currently lives in Brooklyn and Berwickmarker, Mainemarker, with his third wife, filmmaker Amy Barrett, and their son, Everett Barrett Lethem (b. May 23, 2007).

Bibliography

Novels



Novellas

  • This Shape We're In (2000)


Fiction collections



Non-fiction collections



Comics



Miscellaneous



Footnotes

  1. McGlone, Jackie. "Brooklyn dodger", The Scotsman, 2007-05-26. Retrieved on 2007-08-29.
  2. Edemariam, Aida. "The borrower", The Guardian, 2007-06-02. Retrieved on 2007-08-01.
  3. Lethem (2005). p. 77.
  4. Lethem (2005). p. 36-37.
  5. “Interview: Jonathan Lethem", Post Road Magazine, Fall/Winter 2002. Retrieved on 2007-08-29.
  6. Kelleghan, Fiona. "Private Hells and Radical Doubts: An Interview with Jonathan Lethem", Science Fiction Studies 25.2, July 1998. Retrieved on 2007-09-17.
  7. Houle, Zachary. "A Conversation With Jonathan Lethem", The SF Site, November 2000. Retrieved on 2007-08-29.
  8. Gaffney, Elizabeth. "Jonathan Lethem: Breaking the Barriers Between Genres", Publishers Weekly, 1998-03-30. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  9. Lethem, Jonathan. "Breeding Hybrids in the Genre Garden", Locus Magazine, October 1997. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  10. Fleming, Michael. "Norton birthing 'Motherless': New Line nurturing Lethem novel", Variety, 1999-10-13. Retrieved on 2007-08-29.
  11. Clarke, Donald. "Mr Ed", The Irish Times The Ticket, 2007-03-02. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.
  12. Cardwell, Diane. "Untangling the Knots of a Brooklyn Boyhood" , The New York Times, 2003-09-16. Retrieved on 2008-03-28.
  13. Henderson, Eleanor. "From Pittsburgh to Sitka: On Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union" (book review), The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2007. Retrieved on 2007-07-28.
  14. "Jonathan Lethem Interview", FailBetter.com, Summer/Fall 2003. Retrieved on 2007-08-29.
  15. Gilbert, Megan. "A Hit Song of the Mind: Profile of Jonathan Lethem, Author, You Don't Love Me Yet", 2007-05-21. Retrieved on 2007-08-29.
  16. Edemariam, Aida. "The borrower", The Guardian, 2007-06-02. Retrieved on 2007-08-01.
  17. Winters, Rebecca. "Meta-Hero Worship", Time, 2005-05-01. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  18. Johnson, Rich. "Into the Unknown", Comic Book Resources, 2005-06-14. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  19. Quesada, Joe. Joe Fridays: Week 51, Newsarama.com, 2006-05-19. Retrieved on 2006-12-24.
  20. Kleffel, Rick. Jonathan Lethem (mp3 audio), The Agony Column Audio Interview Archive, 2007-04-16. Retrieved on 2007-09-07.
  21. Chronic City listing, Amazon.com. Retrieved on 2009-01-13.
  22. Renaud, Jeffrey. "Lethem Exits the Unknown with Omega", Comic Book Resources, 2008-07-18. Retrieved on 2008-08-03.
  23. Gretzinger, Nelle. "the brooklyn fridge: Jonathan Lethem", Edible Brooklyn, Summer 2007. Retrieved on 2007-12-17.
  24. Edemariam, Aida. "The borrower", The Guardian, 2007-06-02. Retrieved on 2007-08-01. Edemariam mentions Lethem's child and all three of his marriages.


References



External links




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