Jonathan Lethem Live

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So Edward Champion’s April Fools’ Day lampoon of Jonathan Lethem – that Lethem was going on a five-year reading tour – wasn’t that far off that mark. Lethem is reading at four venues just here in Los Angeles to promote his latest comedic novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, but I think the reading last night at Skylight Books will stand apart from most of the other ones for two reasons.

1. There was a band. Arlo and the Arlettes, fronted by, of course, Arlo, a Skylight Books’ employee. This trio had set one of the songs in the book to music (The band in the novel offers plenty of lyrics to choose from). Lethem stood in back, arms crossed, and didn’t appear to be moved by the strum of the twelve string guitar or base riffs, but when he began the reading, he characterized the musical offering as a form of “autofellatio.” What higher praise could musicians receive?

2. There was a man in a mask and a suit, jumping up and down. At first he appeared to be a rabbit, but drawing on my encyclopedic knowledge of the Lethem oeuvre, I determined it actually to be a kangaroo. I think. The costume had two ears and a padded chest/stomach, and it hopped about clutching a bottle in a brown bag. If every reading had this type of show, independent bookstores would be in the black.

But on to the Q&A.

In answering why he choose Los Angeles, Lethem said “I have a hard time giving an excuse for that . . . After ten years of Brooklyn work, I was eager to shake off the mantle of authority of something I know so well.” He had considered Northern California, where he had lived for some time, but preferred an entirely foreign area so he could “disable part of my writing skills – the ones that rely upon a nostalgia for place.” He also said that because of his lack of familiarity with the area, the novel “was not an X-ray of this place. I’m not claiming it to be a Fatherless Silverlake.”

How long did it take him to write this one? Two years, he said, which ties for his speediest novel writing. Also, at the last minute, he cut about seventy pages, because he wanted the comedy to read faster.

His new work is set in Manhattan – “a second way to avoid Brooklyn” and it’s “a big and sprawling ontological horror novel, in a contemporary setting” along the lines of H.P. Lovecraft.

On Outlines: “A novel is a kind of a black hole – a sucking chest wound. It’s a long structured improvisation, and the best outline I’ve ever made is like the cue cards that have one word on them and you can’t remember what that word meant.”

One of the last questions was about why he is offering his movie rights for only back end remuneration. It’s ironic, he admitted, because film options have been his bread and butter, as all his novels have been optioned except for one (and one novel even had three screenplays written for it). Then he went into a long explanation of how artists commodify, and while publishers want to expand privatization and limit intellectual property rights even more, he as an author would like to see much more free reign in the intellectual marketplace (which was kind of his point with the Harper’s essay on Plagiarism).

To close the evening, and to emphasize his beliefs about sharing, he offered a compilation of songs he burned onto a CD – “a grey market CD.” Since he brought only twenty, I didn’t get a chance to grab one, but if one of my readers nabbed a copy, please share the song queue.

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