Jonathan Lethem wryly calls himself a “pop-inspired geek,” but critics and readers know he is not so easily pegged.
This genre-crossing writer first attracted a cult following for futuristic gumshoe novels (Gun, with Occasional Music, 1994) and apocalyptic science-fiction westerns (Girl in Landscape, 1998). His wildly inventive tale of a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, Motherless Brooklyn, won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award, and a 2005 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award sealed Lethem’s status as an author to be reckoned with. In reviewing the bestselling Brooklyn saga Fortress of Solitude (2003), the Austin Chronicle hit on Lethem’s virtuosity: “Better than a movie, better than a symphony, better than a play, and better than a painting, because it is all of them.” Lethem in fact was trained as a painter and aspired to be a musician until admitting, “I was like a mumbling Lou Reed rapper guy. I can’t sing…I just try to make the prose as musical as I can.”
In addition to nine novels, Lethem has written two short story collections—The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye (1996) and Men and Cartoons (2004)—and thinly veiled autobiographical essays, The Disappointment Artist (2006). His most recent book is How We Got Insipid (2006). After living in California for years, he has resettled in the Brooklyn neighborhood of his boyhood.
Excerpt from The Fortress of Solitude(2003)
The best colors all have the best names: Pastel Aqua, Plum, John Deere Yellow, Popsicle Orange, Federal Safety Purple. A blind guy could steal the right paint just hearing the monikers. These colors are the necessities for throwing up a burner, a top-to-bottom masterpiece of flaming 3-D letters studded with rivets or bleeding from gashes, surrounded by clouds of stars, lightning bolts, and a Vaughn Bode wizard or Felix the Cat character standing to one side like a master of ceremonies. A burner comes into life either on the panel of a stilled subway car or on a handball court or schoolyard wall, an unsimple matter of five or six hours in the dead of night, two guys spraying paint, the more talented one handling outlines and fade effects, the lesser doing flat fill-ins, usually two more guys looking out at the end of the block or the entrance to the train yard. Plus ruining a set of clothes, coming home pore-and-tear-duct-clogged with pigment. Plenty more obvious than drugs, to a vigilant parent; the potheads have it easy.
The Disappointment Artist (2006)
Men and Cartoons: Stories (2004)
The Fortress of Solitude (2003)
Gun, with Occasional Music (2003)
Motherless Brooklyn (1999)
Powell’s Books Interview
Fortress of Solitude at Penguin Random House