birnbaum, lethem


Robert Birnbaum interviews Jonathan Lethem (recent MacArthur genius).

Lethem: Now we’re arriving at the bug [that was] in my ear when I said we should talk again. It’s all coming back. Certainly, yes, there’s a kind of relentless bad faith expressed when reviewers or critics remark on one element in a novel as though it’s a remarkable piece of metaphor or surrealism, as though they’ve never encountered such a thing before. They’re shocked, just shocked that something is being proposed—they act as though it is utterly unfamiliar to them, what they really mean is that they object to it on principle, on class or political grounds like those I just described. So, by reacting as though the incursion were new, instead of familiar, it permits a kind of disingenuous head-scratching: “Hmm, perhaps this new method is of interest, or could be, in the hands of the most serious of writers. We’ll have to watch closely and see.” You saw this happening when Roth’s new book was reviewed. Roth’s use of the “alternate history” was treated, in certain quarters, as though, first of all, Roth himself had never written a book that challenged mimetic propriety—suddenly The Breast didn’t exist, suddenly The Great American Novel didn’t exist. Suddenly Counterlife didn’t exist. To write about this thing with a 10-foot pole, and say, “What’s this strange method? What have we got here? One of the great pillars of strictly realist fiction has inserted something very odd into his book. We’ll puzzle over this as though it’s unprecedented.” It was as though there had been no Thomas Pynchon. As though Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Angela Carter, Robert Coover had been thrown into the memory hole. Was there never a book called The Public Burning? Do we really have to retrace our steps so utterly in order to reinscribe our class anxieties? Not to mention, of course, the absolute ignorance of international writing implicit in the stance: where’s Cortazar, Abe, Murakami, Calvino, and so very many others? Well, the status quo might argue, patronizingly, those cute magical-realist methods—how I despise that term—are fine for translated books, but we here writing in English hew to another standard of ‘seriousness.’ Not to mention, of course, the quarantine that’s been implicitly and silently installed around genre writing that uses the same method as Roth’s with utmost familiarity. Well, the status quo might argue, sounding now like an uncle in a P.G. Wodehouse novel: Ah, yes, well, we all know that stuff is, how do you say it, old boy? Rather grubby. No, I say, no. This isn’t good enough, not for the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, in 2004. Let me say it simply: there is nothing that was proposed in Roth’s book that could be genuinely unfamiliar to a serious reader of literary fiction of the last 25 years, 30 years, 50 years. To treat it as unfamiliar is a bogus naiveté—one that disguises an attack on modernism itself, in the guise of suspiciousness about what are being called post-modern techniques. It actually reflects a discomfort with the entire century.

more at The Morning News here.