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Monday, October 26, 2009

Jonathan Lethem's 10/25 Reading at Powell's

Posted by Alison Hallett on Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 4:23 PM

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Last night, Jonathan Lethem took to the book-shaped podium at Powell's to read—in front of a not-quite-packed house—from his new novel Chronic City. The reading really impressed upon me how much most published authors could stand to learn from the average kindergarten teacher. Lethem is an excellent reader, and why? It's because he reads like he's talking to a room full of kids. He's animated! He varies his vocal inflection! He does voices! And lo, his reading becomes storytelling, rather than the mere recitation of words on a page.

After the reading, Lethem answered a handful of audience questions, most of which were mercifully succinct. I didn't take notes, but here's what I remember:

When asked who he considers his literary peers, he mentioned Stephen Milhauser and Don DeLillo—and noted that even though he's often lumped in with writers his own age, the authors that influenced his own writing were necessarily from an older generation. "I didn't grow up reading Michael Chabon," he said at one point, sounding a little exasperated. Philip K Dick was cited as a specific influence on Chronic City—Lethem edited a Library of America collection of four of Dick's novels, and he noted that in re-reading the books for the first time since his early 20s, he gained a new perspective on Dick's work. He also noted the influence of cinematic techniques on his writing, and expressed admiration for the way Graham Greene and Nabokov in particular helped to translate storytelling language of film to the novel. Also, he said something about novels used to be considered lowbrow ("for women, to keep their idle hands busy") and how one day genre fiction and comic books will be considered high art, just like literary novels are now. You heard it here first, folks.

Lethem also talked about the Promiscuous Materials Project, and giving away the film rights to You Don't Love Me Yet, his last novel—an effort to "put his money where [his] mouth is" after taking a strong position in favor of creative plagiarism.

All told, one of the best readings I've seen in a while (not counting, obviously, James Ellroy at Wordstock telling an audience member to shove their question up their ass). If you want more Lethem, Jacket Copy has an interview right here.

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