Jonathan Lethem on "The Collapsing Frontier"

Christopher Taylor, Adult Librarian, Mark Twain Branch Library,
Author Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is a writer of short stories, novels, essays, and the occasional song. After publishing short pieces in science fiction magazines like Journal Wired, Isaac Asimov's, and New Pathways in the late 80s and early 90s, his debut novel Gun, With Occasional Music found a wide audience with its humorous and surreal detective story set against a future Bay Area. Over the course of three decades, his thirteen novels and numerous short stories have explored everywhere, from pre-gentrification Brooklyn to a post-apocalyptic pastoral with an eye for both the marginal and the vast. We spoke via Zoom in anticipation of his new collection The Collapsing Frontier, which sets his highly referential fiction next to essays covering Italo Calvino, Slavislav Lem, the security state, and much more.

Collapsing Frontier is part of PM PressOutspoken Authors series edited by author Terry Bisson. Bisson sadly passed away in January of this year and I wanted to ask about how you first encountered Bisson and his writing.

When I was a pup of a writer, I became infatuated with Terry's short stories. "Bears Discover Fire" was the one that caught my notice first. At this time, I was avidly reading—and trying to place my own stories—in then-contemporary science fiction magazines. And he was this fascinating new voice. I fixated on Terry and got his phone number somehow, cold-calling him and introducing myself. He was garrulous and kind, but more than that, he was a community-minded writer. The Outspoken Authors series is a super-manifestation of a thing that was already true of him; he was social, almost tribal. He believed in hanging out. He was a great hang-outer, and when you hung out with him, you were automatically counted as a participant in a movement, and you had to be introduced to others in the movement. He was a great accidental mentor. Partly through him, I connected, early on, to a constellation of others in his clan; [Kim] Stan[ley] Robinson, Karen Joy Fowler, Paul Park, Michael Blumlein. When, at some point, I understood that Terry was behind this Outspoken Authors series, I shamelessly clamored to be included. I just thought it was so cool, I wanted to be with my friends.

PM Press and their predecessor AK Press are anchors of West Coast radical politics. You've written extensively about your own experience growing up in the bohemian, activist community of your parents in Brooklyn, which you fictionalized in Dissident Gardens. When you moved out west in your early 20s, what was it like re-encountering these politics and communities?

My attraction to Berkeley was as a comfort zone. The left had become shrunken and embattled in the Reagan years, and I was finding what you might call the "Bret Easton Ellis 80s" to be very alienating. I sought sanctuary. Berkeley was recognizable to me. It was like a place that had sprung from my parents' sensibility but somehow had not withered away in this backlash period. I clung to it. This isn't to say I didn't find it exasperating in some respects. I wanted to wrangle with it in a kind of second-generation way—in that way that good punk rock kids were leftists, but that they also kind of found hippies impossible.

AK Press was typical of the universe of zines and leftist-bookish people that were vividly alive to me in Berkeley and Oakland at that time. My response to Berkeley was crucial, truly formative, but also conflictual. Books like Dissident Gardens and the one that follows, A Gambler's Anatomy, embody my feeling of push and pull.

You credit the provenance of the collection's title story to R. A. Lafferty's "Narrow Valley," which you discovered in the Other Dimensions anthology. You've spoken elsewhere about the importance of this anthology, but I was curious to know if this was the first place you encountered Lafferty?

It absolutely would have been. That anthology came into my hands really early, by chance. The science fiction I'd previously encountered came from my mother's bookshelf. She had [Isaac] Asimov and Ray Bradbury mostly—beautiful, old moldering pocket paperbacks of a now very collectible variety. What she didn't have were anthologies, which I later understood were one of the main ways the SF field of the 50s, 60s, and 70s defined itself. There was an incredible wealth of great short story writers being anthologized by editors like [Robert] Silverberg and Terry Carr and Damon Knight.

Very early on, some kid in my grade school handed me a copy of the Other Dimensions. It was jacketless, an enigmatic object where I could only encounter the stories themselves, unmediated. It was the first time I'd read Lafferty, Alfred Bester, Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke and Terry Carr's "Stanley Toothbrush", which I was crazy for. Each of these voices was new to me, all with the power to open the Third Eye. I've been obsessed with this anthology my entire life—it portaled me into 10 new realities all at once.

I hit on this idea about 15 years ago: to write a collection of stories that replied to every story in that original anthology, in turn. I've been going at it so slowly that I'll die before the project is done, but I've finished three of them now; two of those three are in this collection.

In The Collapsing Frontier, you've got a Winnebago venturing out West, standing in for narrative plot. I don't want to spoil it with too many details, but from my vantage point, this is a unique entry in your bibliography, being written in an "auto-fiction" mode. Did you find writing in this style to be freeing? It has a casual, conversational feel but is clearly very tightly crafted.

When I started that story, I had the first paragraph, but it was an enigma to me. I didn't know what to do with it for a long time. Can that be extended? Or is it just a weird blip? I didn't know how to unfold it into the story—it seemed like I was writing about the Lafferty story instead of writing a version of it. And then I realized that I could stay in that mode and write circles around it.

In another sense, the story has some DNA that's familiar to me; I've been thinking about Westerns for a long time. When I wrote my second novel Amnesia Moon, I set it in the desert, an apocalyptic road movie. I'd grown up in the East but hitchhiked across the desert to get to the Bay Area for the first time, so I had this weird, intimate feeling for the space. I'd always been responsive to the iconography of the Western—the existential barrenness, the problem of being out in this kind of planetary space, as opposed to the city.

Soon enough, I wrote a more developed science fictional Western story called "Girl in Landscape," a deliberate assault on John Ford films and John Wayne. So, by the time I write this Winnebago story, it's both an extension of and a reply to Lafferty's own critique; I'm working with iconography that I'd rehearsed a number of times.

The newer part of that story is what you're calling the auto-fiction, the degree to which it was essayistic. But then again, I've been an essayist for a long time. So here I smashed the two modes together.

In your review of Edward Snowden's memoir, Permanent Record, you say " testimony also plays well these days, for my young students, for a lot of us." Direct testimony can be found in much of what's grouped into the "auto-fiction" tent. Do you have a sense of why this style of writing is experiencing a moment of popularity?

Well, you can sense my hesitation—conversations about genre, especially currently fashionable ones, offer a terrific invitation to become fatuous or overly sweeping. Much of what gets roped together in the definition of autofiction is incredibly particular and divergent. The Sheila Heti book or the Karl Knausgaard book, they don't all do the same thing. And as a denizen of used bookstores, I always want to point to the rearview mirror to note that the past presents dozens of precursor examples; from Renata Adler to aspects of Norman Mailer to Tristram Shandy.

That said, this points to some of David Shields’ thinking in Reality Hunger. The things I love most—artifice and storytelling and magic—these are highly implicated in the fked-up ness of everything right now. Lately, we're all rightly distrustful of being enchanted or fooled by stories. For understandable reasons, narrative has fallen under suspicion since everything turns out to be some unbelievably horrible capitalist or fascist maneuver. All the great stories may seem to devolve into someone snaring you for some atrocious purpose or cause. Since the love of storytelling, with all its deviousness and indirection, is what I grew up inside, it's been heartbreaking for me to realize that there's a burning hunger—really an appropriate one—for direct statements of commitment and positionality: here's where I stand.

I used to rely on implication to do all the political work in my writing, but it's too scary these days to leave these things to implication. So one of the things I'm employing the metafiction to do in The Collapsing Frontier is to have my cake and eat it too, to ironize and entrance and beguile and perform magic tricks, but also to stand on one side and say:

Here's what they're for, here's why I'm doing them, here's how I feel about them, here are the questions I think matter, even if I haven't answered them yet because they're hard.

In the story, I preempt the reader pointing to my insufficiencies by pointing to them myself; it's a way of beating the reader's crisis to the finish line. If the story has a crisis, then you can relax—it had it on your behalf!

You've said that you came to essays long after working as a fiction writer. Did these anxieties about fiction push you towards writing non-fiction? Your essays can be just as complex and entrancing as your fiction can be.

The essays are those of a fiction writer—specifically a surrealist fiction writer. They are constantly attempting a trompe l'oeil maneuver. In order to make a Magritte painting, or an M.C. Escher drawing, or a David Lynch film work—and I don't mean to exalt myself into the company of these people—you have to be persuaded of a reality before someone can turn around and twist it into a pretzel. I'm that person who grew up loving and wanting to practice that maneuver. From [Jorge Luis] Borges to Philip K. Dick to Flann O'Brien and also Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich, the stuff I lived for had this capacity to peel back the veneer of reality and show you the dark underbelly. So, my essays are a very late formation for me where you can see me discovering a new tool in real-time: Oh, I get to also address the reader directly; well, what can I do with that? I invent versions of myself who have something that they feel very passionate about. Yet behind that is the larger project of noticing that I'm not sure I have a stable self that can make such a simple testimony. So, I point to the instability in the construction. The essays might be disintegrating around the edges in the way of M.C. Escher's drawing of the hand, where the fingers and the knuckles are incredibly beautiful, but then the drawing kind of trickles off.

"In Mugwump Four" is another Other Dimensions tribute story, replying to Robert Silverberg's "Mugwump Four." I was curious if you replaced the original's time travel with a virtual hyper-pleasure zone to reflect our current expectations of technology.

It's interesting to consider this with someone who's made themselves familiar with the Silverberg story; most readers aren't going to be making the direct comparison. In the Lafferty rendition, I force awareness of Lafferty's story by naming him and paraphrasing his tale. My relation to Silverberg's is much more oblique. Partly this is because, though I love his story, after Philip K. Dick and Black Mirror, the depiction of a destabilizing abyss of mirrors that you tumble through without finding your way back to reality is such a familiar motif that it's almost trite. It was invented by some of the writers I revere most. I'm still infatuated with it, and I still like to reenact it, but I don't have the illusion that it is something new. What my story really takes as its subject is the attitude of the pompous narrator, a man who believes he's above the risk of being consumed by virtual reality because his sensibility, taste, and aesthetic nerve protect him. It's a joke on my own pretensions of being in some indefinable way "above" the internet experience, even as I go to my Instagram page four times a day to see if anyone liked my post.

When I wrote Chronic City, I quite randomly predicted NFTs, to an eerily exact degree. That said, it was dumb luck, as accidental as any science fiction writer who ever predicted anything. The way I got there was by becoming fascinated not with the future projection of some esoteric development but simply by becoming amazed at the emotional dynamics around bidding for objects on eBay. I was really just writing about eBay! I was like a naif—or perhaps I should simply say I was a naif, and my response to seeing people bid on objects on the internet was: this is so weird. Cut to my Mugwump Four story. It's probably no more than a late adopter's fascinated first experience of Instagram. The advantage of being a late adopter—if there is one—is that by the time everyone else is fully acclimated, I retain the stupid superpower of astonishment.

The collection starts with a really touching portrait of your friendship with author David Bowman. I was wondering if it was him and Camden Joy that I was seeing in Chronic City’s Perkus Tooth.

A conversation about the influences that go to create Perkus Tooth could go in so many different directions. He's an amalgamation of at least seven or eight people. I have a life instinct for making myself the sidekick to a raconteur type, obsessive talker—this probably begins with my own mother. In later examples, the obsessive talker to whom I attach was frequently also somewhat self-marginalizing or prone to erratic behavior, so that I became, or felt myself become, their tether to reality; they're dynamic but at risk of floating off into impossibility. So yes, Bowman is in there. Obviously with the wheatpaste and flyers, Camden Joy is in there. My friend Michael Seidenberg, who ran the now legendary Manhattan speakeasy bookstore Brazen Head, is strongly implicated. The rock critic Paul Nelson, who has also passed—his specific tastes and weird tunnel vision are there; when Paul got into Chet Baker it was all we could talk about for two years, he had like 400 Chet Baker CDs. I had unvoiced suspicions: there might be diminishing returns here on the sixth Italian Chet Baker concert from the same month in the last year of Baker's life. But for Paul, there might really be gold at the end of that search. So, all of those people, Bowman, Paul, others, they're all inside the Perkus character at different times and in different ways. And parts of me are in there, too, because that's necessary—a prerequisite, in fact.

With Bowman, you coined the Furry-Girl School of American Fiction, inspired by a character covered in fur from Amnesia Moon. You describe a "furry" book as containing "some eccentric and character or motif, a tic or inside joke, almost, one that made the book personal to the author…" Have you ever set out to write a story or book that wasn't furry?

In some ways that was the proposal to myself with Brooklyn Crime Novel. I didn't conceive of it as not furry, but I was trying to operate by excluding my normal self-consoling, self-endearing maneuvers.

I felt that the book embodied political urgencies and a devotion to other people's stories besides my own. It's a weird thing to say, but Brooklyn Crime Novel was an oral historical project as well as being a novel. I interviewed so many people and wished to put their experiences ahead of mine. It was almost a book written to discredit my own intuitions, so I needed to exclude a lot of what you might call "furry" stuff. Let's not let the fur get onto the page. But then again, the Wheeze character is pretty furry…

The author Gary Phillips recently put me onto Frederic Brown’s His Name was Death when we were chatting about Brown’s sci-fi work. How do you view the relationship between crime fiction and science fiction beyond their shared roots in pulps?

Raymond Chandler was a thunderbolt for me, and it's taken a long time to pick that apart—Why was that revolutionary for me? Why does it mean so much?

One of the most important things about Raymond Chandler is that he was educated at English boarding schools and he's a romantic. He wrote romantic poetry before he wrote crime stories. People speak of a jaded romanticism in the hard-boiled voice, but they're rushing right past the key term. Stop and frame the romanticism for a minute. It's unbelievably romantic in its yearning and disappointment—the suggestion of an innately unsustainable degree of romantic appetite! Then consider the collision of that yearning with what Chandler brought to the contemporary Los Angeles under his inspection—his laser eye for corruption, squalor, and disappointment, and the filthy undertow of capitalism wrecking lives, even though Chandler likely wouldn't have put it those political terms himself—this radical disjunction between what he sees and what he yearns for. In a way, Raymond Chandler is Philip K Dick. Like Dick, he suffers as though in a flash vision, two totally incommensurable realities trying to exist. To exist in him, if nowhere else.

So my feeling for what I was looking for in crime fiction almost all opened out from that experience. It led me to writers with similar, if perhaps less well managed, romantic desperation in their voice—the writers collected and celebrated in Geoffrey O'Brien 's Hardboiled America: Paul Cain, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis, many of those people who were revived in Barry Gifford's early Black Lizard books, not incidentally another project going on in Berkeley in the years I was first there. And then there's another node in the crime fiction space for me, which is the insanity of the puzzle story, the surrealism that you get when this element is pushed to its extreme—the locked room mystery, G. K. Chesterton's Man Who Was Thursday or John Franklin Bardin's The Deadly Percheron, or Borges—a puzzle that's existential and fatalistic, but also totally insane, that unravels into paranoid nonsense.

You'll be joining the Library's Sci-Fi Short Story Club to discuss Joanna Russ' We Who Are About To… I was wondering how you first encountered this novel. It's a pointed critique of golden age triumphalist sci-fi—had you already absorbed the canonical works that it was responding to when you first read it?

That happened to me often, that I would read a later, ironized version of a Science Fiction archetype before reading the original. I read Brian Aldiss' Non-Stop, which picks apart the generational spaceship story, before I read [Robert] Heinlein's more technophilic and triumphalist version. Of course, it's taken Kim Stanley Robinson and Aurora, one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written, to really put the generational spaceship completely to rest. And Carter Scholz did it too, quite brilliantly in his Outspoken Authors series entry [Gypsy].

Post-war 20th-century Science Fiction had a marvelous fantasy that every story published within it could reference a knowledge of the entire field; everyone who's going to read it seriously will know every precedent for the story and grasp its critical importance. And I drank that Kool-Aid—I was trying to read them all. I'd read these old, now appropriately discredited and abandoned stories because everyone was still talking as though all these stories were canonical and worth reading. Well, they actually weren't. You had to acquire your own dowsing rod and begin making distinctions. After a while, I narrowed it down, figuring out what I liked, but in that period where I was reading it all, I would have encountered Russ' story concurrently with the nonsensical stories it was meant partly to overthrow. An absurd reading operation, in retrospect. I was reading the Golden Age and the New Wave all at once in this ridiculous, voracious operation because I just wanted to know what the field was.

Did you see these as being in conflict?

The idea that every serious story should be a response to every precedent is a wonderful but unsustainable idea, really a lunatic idea. If you're going to have someone talk about oxygen running out on the spaceship, say, you couldn't fail to make reference to this short story called "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin from 1947… This notion of a field where everyone was literate in every last artifact was entrancing to me, so I surely saw the Russ as being in an argument with these other stories. But that was the nature of the field: They were all in argument with each other.

So it wasn't that exceptional in that regard?

No, hers was an extreme argument! And a very arresting one. But yes, in being an argument, it was typical in its way of the field at that time. It still is to some extent.

A funny thing: at the same that I was attracted to the notion of a field of literary discourse in total conversation, I was kind of horrified too, and I developed a specific counter-appetite—I loved the science fiction novel that seemed to invent itself in free space, as though there had never been one before. Like George R. Stewart's Earth Abides or Limbo by Bernard Wolfe. Specifically, the books that science fiction enthusiasts would say, well, yeah, that's pretty good, but it's as if it has no idea there is a science fiction field. I thought that was kind of cool—it's like starting the whole thing over.

Book cover of The collapsing frontier
The Collapsing Frontier
Lethem, Jonathan

Jonathan Lethem will be joining the virtual LAPL Sci-Fi Short Story Club to discuss Joanna Russ’ 1976 novella We Who Are About To… on Thursday April 25 at 6 p.m. Email for the Zoom link.