Yesterday 3 different Jonathan Lethems converged in my head. Yowza! But it got me thinking about the nexus of SF, paranoia, and drugs. And the ways that we are still living in the 70s. And it also reminded me of how much I like Lethem.
1. This book came out and is getting reviewed, despite the persistent semi-underground status of both the author and its subject. Here’s a comprehensive, if sprawling, review of the book. Lethem wrote an idiosyncratic, personal close reading of a transitional Talking Heads album. Here’s a fun interview for the occasion. I love the Talking Heads! Ohboyohboyohboy!
2. I listened to Michael Silverblatt’s interview with Lethem and Steve Erickson, whose books are now on my list, about this book:
3. I’ve been slowly making my way through this:
This convergence gave me a little much to say. I don’t know if I can combine it into any coherent discussion, but multiple strands are fitting for the topic, no?
First, yeah, I called Lethem semi-underground, even though he took over David Foster Wallace’s position at Pomona College. I say this because he is never included in the list of great contemporary authors. Pynchon, Gaddis, Delillo, Wallace. There’s usually mentioned in the same breath. Obviously there aren’t any people of color or women on this list. But Lethem isn’t there either. Probably because of his fan-stance about popular music and books, because he started out as a light SF author, because his books feel a little too genre-bound to be considered AMBITIOUS. Perhaps because his current dominant exploration in fiction and criticism is to make very, very clear that authorship is a group effort, whether we like it or not. He refutes the idea of a lone, tortured genius. He’s communal in a way that great literature isn’t supposed to be.
That said, I don’t love everything he’s done. But that’s OK too. I don’t love everything Wallace has done either. And he IS a lone, tortured genius.
I also believe that Philip K. Dick is the under-acknowledged author of just about every contemporary SF trope. Anything having to do with alternate universes, or questions about which reality is more valid, or drugs either disintegrating or rebuilding one’s consciousness and identity. Or when a government (or an evil deity) generates some kind of false reality to maintain control over people. Or when mechanical intelligences are indistinguishable from people. Or when pop culture and popular movements show up in your book. Or when an author’s breakdown is narrated in novel form.
Or when all of these things happen in the same plot.
But who reads PK Dick? Who thinks of him as an author who has any influence outside of the SF ghetto? As Erickson acknowledged, Dick wrote almost as many bad books as good ones. And he never wrote a paradigmatic masterwork that distills all his interests and qualities. And his oevre is wildly disparate, with straight-ahead alternate reality/alternate world novels as well as polarizing, borderline psychotic explorations of ancient mystical christianity.
Nonetheless, I see Dick’s influence everywhere in popular culture, and I am happy to see his tortured, fragmented, post-breakdown journal published with annotations by some of our brightest thinkers. I’m looking forward to reading it.
As for the Talking Heads, they are similarly under-acknowledged and influential. Not punk, not pop, not world-beat, nothing that fits conveniently into musical trends that came before or after. And not really considered as brainiac as other bands, despite their intense level of abstraction and intelligence.
Lethem begins to articulate this side of them in that Salon interview:
They’re not wordy, really, but the sensibility is so fundamentally literary. Usually people think about Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or somebody recent like Craig Finn, who have these cascades of descriptions and evocations. Byrne never did that and it doesn’t seem like there was ever a phase in his songwriting career where he was even thinking to do it. But in another way I think Talking Heads are a very literary band in their fundamental stance, their ambivalence and sense of inquiry.
I think that their twitchiness, their voracious attention to the world, their musical drive (that bass) and, yes, their paranoia distilled the late 70s and 80s in ways that are still extremely relevant. I think they are, as much as the Clash and early rap, the voice of that era. And I don’t think that any of the post-Talking Heads configurations of bandmates got anywhere close to the achievements of the full band, despite Byrne’s difficulty and genius.
Which brings me to paranoia and the 70s. Which is also a story about how SF is really mainstream literature, even though its writers and readers tend to segregate (or be segregated). I think Lethem’s career has helped with this problem, but I also doubt that his influence is as strong as I wish it would be (see above).
Anyway, Lethem in that Salon interview describes paranoia as a fear-driven worldview. I agree, but see it much more broadly. A conviction that there are forces at work upon your life that you don’t understand. A worldview that gained cultural dominance at precisely the moment that technological, military, and economic forces were in fact influencing the daily lives of people all over the world, growing in size and scope, and developing complexity that is impossible to comprehend from the outside.
There are some historical flashpoints for this conviction: Incidents during the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal. The elimination of the gold standard and that made money and value more of an idea than a concrete, objective entity. And moving on to the Internet era: global communications technologies that we cannot control or access that enable corporate entities to develop practices we cannot control or access.
That is, paranoia is the one of the few legitimate responses to globalization. It could be based on fear, but it could also be based on realistic apprehension of the way the world works.
We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know who’s in charge. We don’t trust those who appear to be in charge. We suspect them of being pawns of some greater, more powerful–yes, shadowy and mysterious–forces. The Koch Brothers, George Soros, Apple, the G8, the Jews.
Paranoid conspiracy-building is the only way to make sense of what we see around us.
Dick was driven mad by it, the Talking Heads made fun of it. But I don’t see 2012 as presenting to us a significantly different world.