Jonathan Lethem, a bestselling author and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, is often seen as a major figure behind the growing acceptance of superhero motifs in literary fiction, thanks to novels like The Fortress of Solitude and stories like “Super Goat Man.” But that doesn’t mean he’s a fan of the current crop of superhero movies.
“I think one of the least satisfying film genres I’ve ever encountered is the contemporary superhero movie, which just seems to me kind of dead on arrival,” Lethem says in Episode 226 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I can’t even get into the hair-splitting about, ‘Oh, but there are three or four good ones.’ I just don’t see any life there.”
Lethem, who initially set out to become a visual artist, says that comic books are a unique storytelling medium with pleasures that don’t necessarily translate well to live action.
“It seems to me there’s a disconnect at a fundamental formal level between what a comic book does when you encounter it and what a CGI superhero movie does when you encounter it,” he says.
And while Lethem’s childhood love of superheroes has left an indelible mark on his fiction, he says that he largely stopped reading superhero comics in his early twenties, around the time of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which furnished what Lethem sees as the definitive deconstruction of the superhero trope.
“It’s saying, ‘These figures are unbearably contradictory, and they’re not sustainable,’” Lethem says. “I agreed with Alan Moore’s autopsy in Watchmen. I didn’t think there was anything left.”
He’s still intrigued by the notion of superhuman powers—his new novel A Gambler’s Anatomy concerns a backgammon hustler who may or may not be psychic—but he says it’s the idea of disappointing powers that really resonates with him.
“I wrote about the failure of powers,” he says. “That’s what I write about in The Fortress of Solitude. Having the magic ring is utterly useless. You can’t save anyone on those terms.”
Listen to our complete interview with Jonathan Lethem in Episode 226 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Jonathan Lethem on breaking in:
“Really the first important piece of fiction I published—in terms of my own sense of accomplishment, and I think it was a real turning point in my sense of my own capacities—was a novella I placed with Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, and the story was called ‘The Happy Man.’ And it was immediately—to my incredible delight and surprise—it was immediately caught up a little bit in the very lively fan critical culture, and it was nominated for a Nebula Award. I flew to Atlanta to appear at the Nebula ceremony, and I met all sorts of people all at once who were treating me as a kind of colleague. And so it was social reinforcement, suddenly I felt like I’d found my people.”
Jonathan Lethem on genre snobbery:
“Don DeLillo wrote virtual science fiction, and wrote absurdist, fantastical stories in The New Yorker that were strongly akin to Italo Calvino and also to R.A. Lafferty or Robert Sheckley, and to me it just seemed transparent that if these arguments still existed, they existed because of calcified bias—old, hierarchical, and class-anxious systems of putting quarantines around popular culture that rock and roll, and film noir, and R. Crumb, and the great science fiction writers, and Raymond Chandler had all made absurd, that the existence of so much vitality in popular and vernacular genres and modes made that argument absurd to anyone who actually cared about culture.”
Jonathan Lethem on “Super Goat Man”:
“It’s a story about how beautiful, and absurd, and painful, and exciting it was to have parents who went all in on the ’60s, essentially. I think of Super Goat Man really as a disguised vision of Allen Ginsberg. He’s this character, like Ginsberg, whose bravery is superheroic, and he’s totally attractive and totally ridiculous at the same time. He’s capable on the one hand of changing everything, of transforming the culture, and at the same time—paradoxically and in a very strange and painful way—he’s capable of being put back in the box. By the time of Reaganism a figure like Ginsberg seems like a relic and easily mocked. And so Super Goat Man is meant to somehow be an emblem of all that difficult stuff.”
Jonathan Lethem on Philip K. Dick:
“When I was 19, and I dropped out of college and ran away to Berkeley, what I was going there to do was involve myself in the Philip K. Dick Society and help Paul [Williams] fold and stamp these newsletters and send them out to people who cared—I think at its peak about 800 people were receiving this newsletter. … The only [Philip K. Dick] book you could buy in a new bookstore was a movie tie-in edition of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that had Harrison Ford on the cover, and was re-titled. That group of readers and critics and true believers changed literary history. … There’s almost no comparison to [Philip K. Dick’s] retrieval from the margins of American literature.”
Read more: http://www.wired.com/