Words and images by Jasun Horsley
I recently had a podcast discussion with the author Jonathan Lethem. This connection has probably meant more to me than previous connections. For one thing, it’s been ongoing since the inception (very much was the inception) of Seen & Not Seen, and anyone who has read that work knows how important my connecting to Lethem has been to me at a personal level. So I was a bit daunted by the thought of trying to get everything into a couple of hours’ conversation, which, of course, we didn’t. Here are a couple of things I wanted to bring up with Jonathan Lethem that I didn’t get to.
Considering how much we have in common, the chances of our ever meeting were slim. It’s not as if we met at a David Byrne concert, a Marvel comics convention, or a Philip K. Dick conference. (Dick was our connection—how manly can you get?) The distance between our worlds—or the smallness of the overlap between them—can be guessed at by looking at our respective audiences. Mine is small, his is large. And yet I have a strong feeling that, so far at least, I have probably brought more people to his work than he has to mine (I know a fair number of people who had never heard of Lethem before I introduced them).
This has to do with one of the run-through threads in our conversation: the margin and the mainstream. This is a subject that’s central (and circumferential) to my whole experience of Lethem and the context he provides by knowing him (Lethemia, for short).
In our first recorded exchange, Jonathan said something about how my initial reaching out to him might have signaled a sort of stalker energy, had it not been for other, leavening factors. We didn’t explore this idea much, though I wanted to, because our conversation moved so fast and opened up so many possible avenues to go down. The notion of stalking (a sorcery term from Castaneda as well as a social and legal one) suggests a psychic intimacy (that of predator and prey) but also complicity. The best sort of predator identifies so fully with its prey that it becomes one with it, literally once consumption/consummation occurs. A mirror image is created by whatever gazes into it. To a similar though not equal degree, a literary public figure such as Lethem is created by readers’ responses to his work.
Both Lethem & I (who are readers of each other’s writing, as well as writer-commentators on things the other has written) are seeking a similarly lost object, hence we are lost (immersed) in the same fevered quest. The correctness of our orientation (the healthiness of our obsessions) is confirmed by the improbability of our meeting: it’s not that our shared interests led us to the same spot in the cultural noosphere; it’s that our interests seem to be sourced in a similar driving “wound.” If so, it’s that wound which determined where we ended up on the battlefield—convalescing loudly inside a literary margin for the functionally infirm.
Meeting Lethem is a step towards that eternally evasive but quest-defining, quest-ending discovery—that the seeker is really what is being sought. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.
To explore the abyss, start wherever you are standing.
In his afterword to Seen & Not Seen, Jonathan Lethem writes something about how including him in the writing of the book (both in the writing process and the content being written) must have seemed like a high-risk endeavor for me. It’s true that it did (and does, the process goes on with this post), but it occurred to me before our first talk (another thing I wanted to bring up but didn’t) that, in certain respects, the greater risk is Lethem’s. As a dweller on the margins, my profile is low and whatever exposure I might inadvertently invite by revealing my stalker-like interest in Lethem (and the literary establishment he represents), it isn’t going to change my circumstances much. For Lethem, securely established within the mainstream and with many more eyes upon him, the same does not apply.
What’s margins and what’s mainstream? What do I as a writer want to achieve by writing? Connection: to communicate meaning effectively. Communication isn’t complete until it’s received, and the only way to know it has been received is through dialogue.
To reach a thousand (or a million) readers with my work sounds desirable; but what if the work is being incompletely or even wrongly received? How does that compare to reaching a single reader and knowing that he or she has received more or less exactly what I set out to communicate? In the first case, no real connection has occurred; in the second, we have contact.
All this came into my awareness while thinking about Jonathan Lethem and the difference between my margins and his mainstream.
What happens when a writer makes it to the mainstream? His work enters the cultural discussion (he becomes relevant); it is reviewed by major periodicals, optioned for movies or TV shows, makes it on book lists and becomes part of book clubs, maybe even gets onto school or university curricula. More and more people read the work because they want or need to be part of that discussion, to participate in the zeitgeist. They come to the work within a context of social agreement and the corresponding pressure that creates. It’s no longer a simple or clean relationship between an author and a reader; it has become part of a larger social tapestry which includes all the usual elements of power, status, acceptance, approval, and so on. The focus is accordingly less on the work itself or on those embedded meanings which pertain to the author’s own personal exploration process, and more and more on the cultural “relevance” of the work, i.e., how it helps reinforce the meaningfulness of our values and our connectedness to one another via those meanings and values.
There’s very little space in a writer’s social maneuverability between marginal/unknown and overrated.
Being marginal means having hardly any readers but being deeply appreciated by them (even to a degree appreciated for being marginal). Being successful means having lots of readers who read your work because they have been directed to read it by the culture and who feel, to whatever degree, an obligation, not only to read but to like the work because it is literary—i.e., culturally valued. Reading and liking the work becomes a measure of our connection to and place within the dominant culture.
Naturally, this creates a backlash of disappointed readers who are more critical than they would otherwise have been if their expectations hadn’t been raised by all the hype, as well as readers who are predisposed to be critical simply because of the hype. This isn’t altogether wrong of them either—since such readers are expressing an awareness that truly meaningful voices become diluted and even polluted via this cultural appropriation of their meanings.
Something along these lines seems to have occurred with Nic Pizzolatto and the second season of True Detective. The meanings were obscured because the cultural baggage that had accrued around Pizzolatto and the show, after the first season, prevented many viewers from connecting to the core content, those deeper meanings that Pizzolatto was exploring and trying to communicate. The backlash against Pizzolatto and the show snowballed via social media (Salon even ran an “article” consisting exclusively of the more snarky tweets about the show), and an environment was created in which anyone who did connect to the show’s deeper meanings became more and more marginalized, their voices (increasingly sheepish in most cases) drowned out by the growing roar of the crowd.
In crowds, things happen that can only be understood via an understanding of crowd psychology. Edward Alsworth Ross wrote back in 1903:
One result of reciprocal suggestion is that association in a crowd renders every psychic manifestation more intense. Masked by anonymity, people throw off customary restraint and give their feelings exaggerated expression. To be heard one does not speak; one shouts. To be seen one does not simply show one’s self; one gesticulates. Boisterous laughter, frenzied objurgations, frantic cheers, are needed to express the merriment or wrath or enthusiasm of the crowd. These exaggerated signs of emotion cannot but produce in suggestible beholders exaggerated states of mind. Insensibly the mental temperature rises so that what once seemed hot now seems luke-warm, what once felt tepid now seems cold. The energizing and intensifying of the feelings by means of reciprocal suggestion will be most prompt and striking when the members of the crowd are in an excited state of mind or meet under agitating circumstances. In this case, the impulse to the unbridled manifestation of feeling is rife from the first, and the psychic fermentation proceeds at an uncommon rate. [“Moot Points in Sociology. IV. The Properties of Group-Units” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 9, No. 3 (Nov., 1903), pp. 349-372.]
Mimesis means that people in a crowd imitate the dominant behaviors being exhibited, so that the behaviors, emotions and opinions that are dominant quickly become amplified. The amplification means that, to stand out in such a crowd, opinions not only need to be expressed more loudly but also more emphatically, belligerently, and vitriolically. Naturally, any voice that doesn’t echo the dominant tone and value set, that doesn’t concur with the ever-louder collective voice, will be shouted down at best; at worst, it will be targeted for more vitriol.
This also applies when the crowd-feeling, or group think, is seemingly positive: any voice that questions the general agreement to praise is seen as an interloper and a threat, and risks being scapegoated. This, I think, is the nature of collective cultural “discussion,” to become primal, tribal, mimetic, to close ranks and shut down all discussion in favor of dull, hypnotic chanting: “One of us, one of us, one of us.” This is not really an appealing or productive environment for a writer (or anyone) to enter into. It is not a milieu conducive to, or even tolerant of, the shared exploration of delicate interior meanings with other similarly searching souls. And yet this is the milieu of the mainstream.
Most established writers are understandably cautious about seeming to criticize their readers or the culture that has elevated them to a position of influence, so I won’t know for sure unless a similar sort of elevation happens to me. But I suspect that the first thing any sensitive writer is likely to feel on making it to the mainstream is: how the hell do I get back to the margin?
Everything is about connection, for me at least at this time.
How to find connections that are undiscovered; how to deepen ones that exist; how to restore ones that are broken; how to break ones that feel unhealthy. I can observe at the surface level how so much of what I do is about connecting. The weekly podcast allows for connecting to someone in the liminal space I have created, a space which paradoxically is less liminal because I have created it. The safety of structure that recording (monitoring) brings, the context of deep conversation, means there’s no chance of getting sucked into meaningless and enmeshing dialogues; but also, less chance of a more personal, emotional connection (perhaps), a kind of connection which feels also unsafe.
A recurring pattern from infant-hood is that of being alone, disconnected, abandoned, reaching out for a connection and either being unable to get it or to sustain it, a faulty connection (a drunken mother), or one cruelly severed by a sudden shift in emotions; or worse, a hostile connection, as with my brother. And in all cases, sinking into a deathlike stupor or fleeing into a dissociative fantasy, only coming to life/earth again once the connection is restored in some living way.
Facebook is not connecting; podcasting is not connecting; writing books is not connecting; even sex is not connection. All of these things CAN be the means to connect, but then so can anything at all. Or nothing at all.
The connection is always there. But when attention is on the self and its perceived lack of connection (the self being isolated & discreet), then the connection feels truly lost. Then we get to follow the lack back. Weirdly it’s in the emptiness, not the fullness, that the connection happens. Maybe it’s because we have to be receivers before we can become transmitters?
Empty the cup before trying to fill it
The above was written between my first and second conversation with Jonathan Lethem, an older brother stand-in if ever I had one.
During our second conversation, we discussed Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, a sci-fi parable about a sentient void called Lack that is being scientifically studied. We discussed the parallels with Lethem’s loss of his mother when he was fourteen. I had wanted to suggest to Lethem that his wrenching loss in adolescence might have been a rite of passage that allowed something to happen that so rarely happens for male children in today’s world—a full psychic dis-enmeshment from the mother’s psyche (individuation, in other words). It had occurred to me after our first dialogue that this might be the formative experience that gave Lethem a kind of autonomy that made him a desirable writer-sponsor for me, in my own creative attempts to emerge from a dissociative fantasy of maleness/autonomy into the world at large—to bring about a full working connection between the inside and the outside, the emptiness and that which fills it. Or something.
When I first read As She Climbed Across the Table, I was moved and impressed by both the lightness and the depth, the psychic coherence, of Lethem’s little parable. I sent him an email about it that was really a review of the book. It went like this:
It all begins not with the word, but with listening. Every authentic cry requires a response. The nature of an emptiness is that it echoes, provided the sound reaches all the way to its core. As She Climbed Across the Table is an authentic cry, so, here we are again.
A thought I had in the shower after finishing the book: “Lethem is a messenger whose mission is to undo the fabric of spacetime by placing his attention on all the fatal flaws in it and then wedding his own perceptions to ours (the reader). In other words, a real writer.”
If I’d read As She Climbed Across the Table first of Lethem’s works, our relationship might have developed quite differently. I might have been a FAN.
The hat comes off to you again and underneath is the same old rabbit hole, the one you can never step in twice. As She Climbed Across the Table, as a prototype for Chronic City, is a less mature or textured but also less labored work; and it may reveal more of the author’s psyche because of it.
I found the enjoyment you got from writing As She Climbed Across the Table palpable. It read like a lark, you appeared tickled by your own audacity. It’s an adolescent work, but in a good way—a great way. It reads like you knocked it off in a single, fevered, pizza and Cheetos fueled all-nighter, Dick-style only without the drugs. But for a knock-off, the story is perfect, closer to Coleridge on opium than hackdom, a flawless jewel of symmetrical alchemy, archetypal smoke and mirrors, a dazzling sleight of hand of literary self-exposure in which you are flashing the reader and blinding him at the same time, so we, he, you(?), are never quite sure if we really saw—what you thought I saw.
I felt your presence, your personality, more palpably in the main character than in any of the other books I’ve read. Philip, named after your horse-loving mentor. But it’s fitting also—in a novel about a man who loses himself inside/turns himself into a cosmic vagina, in a desperate quest to regain access to a woman—that you made a surreptitious nod to Dick.
The book is like one of those bizarre science machines that create their own environments to see what happens to particles when the rules of physics are suspended. It reduces the psyche to gracefully manageable proportions (isn’t all art a kind of cartoon?) and seems to encompass everything about human existence and still be a light little divertissement, a bit of literary candy.
And as always, there is that dull, distant hum of despair under the drolleries. Lethemia.
I was struck by this in chap 25, from deTooth (a distant ancestor of Perkus?): “The correct approach to a text as dense and self-consistent and original as Lack is a criticism with all the same qualities.”
I realized then that this was what I had done with Chronic City! From the relevant chapter in Seen & Not SeenSeen & Not Seen:
“Chronic City is a novel about holes, but it itself is also a hole, like Noteless’s memorial, waiting for us to fall (or dive) in. If we step closely enough to its edges, the vacuum at the center will take us. . . . This essay should fit effortlessly and perfectly into the hole at the heart of Chronic City, since that hole was meant only for me, its first and only witness/reader.”
Viral prose reveals the author’s soul and the soul is a hole, a hole whose gravitational pull can’t be counteracted but only met with equal and opposite suction by the observer. That lack meet lack and the fullness gets to fill the space between two absences. No observer or observed, only perception happening.
Non-(fiction) is the gateway to reality as it is un-subjected to (suspended dis-)belief. (Unpack that if you dare.) Belief unsuspended sinks into the depths; and perception, always winged, now un-ballasted, takes flight.
This all seems fairly in line with what Lethem & I discussed in our second conversation. So much so that I am not sure there’s anything to add that won’t detract from it. That emptiness can be fullness, perhaps, or that loss can be a gain, that a lack can be a presence—all of which speaks to the doubleness of our existence. This idea of doubleness is perhaps what writing is always and inescapably demonstrating, because not only does a written text create a split between the author who writes and the author who is written into the text, it also establishes a connection between two previously separate entities: the psyche that transmits and that which receives. It creates a mirror that can only be filled when what’s reflected in it is sufficiently empty to accept all projections.
Lethem-the-overrated is a much “greater”—more uniquely autonomous—writer than the world can ever receive or reflect. The clutter of the world turns everything into its own tawdry image—being chronically multiple, it can never perceive what is singular.
But one psyche can match the signal, from an isolated space within the margins. And signaling back, it can restore to the original signal its uniqueness.
This requires accepting the invitation of the mirror—which is not to pass through but to turn away from the emptiness, and toward what is full.
Intuitively speaking, that is.
Listen to the Lethem-Horsley dialogues at The Liminalist: The Podcast Between.