JONATHAN Lethem is well known to readers of The Misread City one of the most consistently fascinating American novelists. Nearly all the writers we celebrate here are West Coast figures – Dick, Le Guin, Chabon, Chandler, Ross MacDonald – and Lethem has stood out as a kind of token Brooklyner.
But Lethem, whose most recent novel was the Upper East Side-set Chronic City, has finally seen the light. He moves to Claremont, just east of LA, in about a month, and begins teaching at Pomona College in January.
(Lethem, I should mention here, has also written a number of important essays that established Philip K. Dick's canonical position, and he edited the Library of America volumes of the sf novelist's work.)
What follows is the most extensive interview Lethem has given on his move west.
What made you want to uproot from New York and come to Southern California?
I'm forced to turn your first question on its head: the conversation with Pomona College began -- and was too flattering, and intriguing, to completely wave off -- before I'd had any inkling of a willingness to make this reverse-migration-to-the-exile-I'd-left-behind. Or, for that matter, any inkling of my little family's willingness, since I'm a "we" now.
So, I didn't "want" to uproot, or at least I didn't think so. I became willing to consider it. And then, increasingly over a long stretch (since the conversation with Pomona evolved slowly), became fascinated, and then drawn. It was never about any pleasure in leaving -- that's bittersweet, or worse than bittersweet. But I began to be completely excited about what Pomona and the Inland Empire scene had to offer me -- and, particularly, my family -- in the way of a next chapter I hadn't anticipated or sought until it was dangled before me.
And about a "return" that was to a place I'd never really been, since the Bay Area is really another California entirely. For that matter, my life is as different as can be from the life that drew me to move to Berkeley in 1985.
You are very associated with the renaissance of post-Auster Brooklyn writing, especially thanks to Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. But you have California roots as well.
Yes: Berkeley and Oakland for a decade, from age 23 to 34. I went completely native, or so I thought. In my first five years I don't think I traveled back to New York more than twice, briefly, and I felt complacently certain for seven or eight years that I'd never want to live on the East Coast again. Married a Californian (who lives in Brooklyn now; not my fault.) Set each of my first three novels in some quasi- or cartoon West. I even learned to drive.
Is there something about the culture of the West Coast that interests you specifically, or even generally?
Sure, absolutely, and I wouldn't want to be the least bit glib or soundbitey about it; as Bernard Malamud said in answer to a different question, "I'd be too moved to say."
In a sense that I regard as deeply and importantly 'received' (i.e., not my own private conception, but no less stirring or authentic an experience for that) I'd been dreaming of a Western Migration, and of a Californian self-discovery or self-transcendence, for longer than I remember -- through the lens of the Beats, and John Ford's movies, and Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, and the Doors "L.A. Woman" and a thousand other renditions of this fundamental but unsimple American myth. And none of that was dispelled by my actual arrival.
Ten years in, I'd like to think I'd scratched the surface of the mystery, but I wouldn't claim more than that.
You went to a small liberal arts college in some ways similar to Pomona, but moved to the Bay Area before you graduated, I think.
Yep. Dropped out of Bennington College as a sophomore, hitchhiked west and got a taste, then turned up six months later and stuck. I do think Pomona in 2010 is a slightly better-organized place than Bennington in the mid-80's, though (cf. Bret Ellis Rules of Attraction).
Despite the appeal of bohemian Eastside LA, where you’ve spent some time, you’re choosing to settle among the groves of academe, near the Claremont Colleges.
I'm all about middle-aged family-values lifestyles right now, my friend. Plus I can walk to work.
Anything you’re dying to do the day you land here?
There's a Pho joint in Montclair I want to get back to pronto.