More Alive and Less Lonely collects over a decade of Jonathan Lethem’s finest writing on writing, with new and previously unpublished material, including: impassioned appreciations of forgotten writers and overlooked books, razor-sharp critical essays, and personal accounts of his most extraordinary literary encounters and discoveries.
Only Lethem, with his love of cult favorites and the canon alike, can write with equal insight into classic writers like Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, modern masters like Lorrie Moore and Thomas Pynchon, graphic novelist Chester Brown, and science fiction outlier Philip K. Dick.
Sharing his infectious love for books of all kinds, More Alive and Less Lonely is a bracing voyage of literary discovery and an essential addition to every booklover’s shelf.
|Melville House Publishing
|Penguin Random House Publisher Services
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About the Author
Editor CHRISTOPHER BOUCHER is a professor of English at Boston College, editor of Post Road magazine, and author of the novels How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive and Golden Delicious, both from Melville House.
Hometown:New York, New York
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:Left Bennington College after two years
Read an Excerpt
More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers
Introduction by Christopher Boucher
The barber, the cheese man, and the bookie were all named Carmine—oh yeah, wheels within wheels, big time.
I first heard about the project that would become More Alive and Less Lonely at Fenway Park in the summer of 2015. I’d gone to the Red Sox game with my good friend Jaime Clarke, a Boston-based writer, editor, and bookseller, to see them play the Phillies. Sometime around the fifth or sixth inning, Jaime mentioned that his friend Jonathan Lethem was interested in working with my publisher, Melville House, on a nonfiction book. Jaime thought I should consider editing the project—was I interested?
With that question, the game stopped mid-pitch and everyone at Fenway froze—the players, the crowd, the vendors, perhaps all of Boston. Not only is Lethem one of the most important writers of my generation, but he’s also one of the brightest stars in my literary solar system—a star I’ve steered by for my entire writing career. The game resumed, but I can’t tell you a single thing about it—my attention was elsewhere.
Jaime put Lethem and me in touch, and Lethem sent me the work he’d collected—roughly seventy-five pieces, some never before published—all written over the past two decades or so. I was charged with identifying a framework and a focus. I didn’t have to look too hard. The theme of books and book culture jumped out at me immediately. What’s more, I was struck by how well these pieces cohered. Collectively, they formed a sustained meditation on the endeavors of reading and writing; a celebration of a life spent in books; a readerly call-to-action. Without knowing it, I’d been waiting to read a book like this for years. Grateful as I was to glean lessons on craft from Lethem’s fiction, I did so only by inference and assumption. But this is a hotline—rare, direct access to Lethem’s X-ray-like critical insight; his mental library; his infectious hunger for books of all kinds.
Because these selections are culled from a twenty year span and a variety of publications, More Alive and Less Lonely invites you to travel in time a little. You might turn a page and find yourself in 1985, sitting next to Lethem at a reading by Anthony Burgess (“Anthony Burgess Answers Two Questions”). From there you can hop forward to 2009, where readers are eagerly awaiting Lorrie Moore’s first book in eleven years. Flip from there, perhaps, back to 1983, where a teenage Lethem confronts the beat hero Herbert Huncke at a Brooklyn bookstore. There are delightful surprises at every turn: anthems for books you might not be familiar with (Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird, for example, or Tanguy Viel’s Beyond Suspicion), radically creative anthology contributions (an essay on footnotes, for example, which itself takes the form of self-referencing footnotes), and tributes that correlate directly to Lethem’s novels (most notably, “The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head,” a fictional interview between the film director Spike Jonze and Chronic City’s Perkus Tooth).
By and large, the chapter headings divide the selections according to their mission: The work in “Lost Worlds” shines light on obscure or out-of-print titles, for example, while “Engulf and Devour” collects writing about books in the canon. “OK You Mugs” amasses Lethem’s writings on media, while the selections in “It Can Still Take Me There” reflect—either directly or indirectly—on the entity of the book itself.
I see these chapters as temporary containers, though, suggested routes that I’m sure you’ll abandon to cut your own paths. Some readers may gravitate towards Lethem’s writing on one particular writer or topic—Thomas Berger, say, or the notion of amnesia as a narrative device—while others will surely look to More Alive as a partial portrait of contemporary literature in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Lethem completists, meanwhile, might comb these writings for biographical details—I’d direct them to Lethem’s anecdotes about his surprise visit to Chester Brown in Toronto (“A Furtive Exchange”), or the time he made Philip Roth laugh at a party (“The Counter-Roth”).
Some of the lines of motion here are more subtle. As a student of Lethem’s fiction, I found myself tracking his analysis of other writers’ styles, for example. I love his description of Moore’s “innate thingliness of words…their plastic capacity,” the way he rejects abstraction in the work of Thomas Pynchon (“…figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it.”) and his reverence for Moby-Dick—which, Lethem writes, “installs itself in your brain as a kind of second brain, bigger than that which contains it, much like swallowing an ocean of language and implication.”
Look, too, for those tendrils that run between this book and others by Lethem. In one of my favorite moments in 2012’s The Ecstasy of Influence, for example, Lethem writes that “Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality, and so forth.” Pair that with what Lethem says about Franz Kafka here—that “[he] grasped that language itself—even the very plainest and most direct—is innately metaphorical, fabulated, and grotesque. What’s worse, consciousness, being constructed from language, has that same unholy drift…” (“The Figure in the Castle”).
Finally, take note of the new, unpublished writing that appears here for the first time—the footnotes on Berger and Sylvie Selig, for example—and the spirit of restless inquiry therein. Like a detective on a case, Lethem circles back, reexamines the evidence, corrects himself and reframes anecdotes from new perspectives. It’s not the answers that drive him, after all, but the questions’ persistence—and, to borrow from his words on Philip K. Dick, the “beauty of their asking.”
In the end, I confess I was driven by my own selfish interests here; I curated a book that I myself wanted to own—one I could carry with me into bookstores, sip on the fly or gulp from in longer sittings, look to for both short bursts of insight and sustained inquiries. This book, after all, is a node, its objective to lead you to other nodes—those mentioned here, and then to other books by those authors, then to books that influenced those authors, through an infinitely expanding web of texts.
Driving these connections, though, is Lethem’s remarkable generosity of spirit and gratitude. Ultimately, in fact, I regard More Alive and Less Lonely as a love letter—one addressed to books, writers and readers alike. Lethem says as much in the pages that follow. He writes:
“I followed the higher principle of pleasure, tried to end up where I’d started: with writing I loved and wanted to recommend to someone else. That is to say, you.”
Table of Contents
Introduction Christopher Boucher ix
I Engulf and Devour
The Loneliest Book I've Read 3
Footnote on Sylvie Selig 11
Engulf and Devour 15
The Figure in the Castle 19
The Big Sleep 27
The Greatest Animal Novelist of All Time 31
The Counter-Roth 45
II It Can Still Take Me There
The Only Human Superhero 55
Forget This Introduction 59
What's Old Is New (NYRB) 65
To Catch a Beat 69
III Objects in Furious Motion
Fierce Attachments 83
Attention Drifting Beautifully (Donald Barthelme) 87
Rock of Ages 91
My Hero: Karl Ove Knausgaard 95
A New Life (Malamud) 97
A Mug's Game 101
Steven Millhauser's Ghost Stories 105
IV Lost Worlds
The Mechanics of Fear, Revisited 113
On the Yard 119
Walter Tevis's Mockingbird 127
A Plate-Spinning Act 129
Everything Said and Exhausted (Daniel Fuchs) 137
How Did I Get Here and What Could It Possibly Mean? (Bernard Wolfe) 143
Twas Ever Thus (Tanguy Viel's Beyond Suspicion) 147
Russell Greenan's Geniuses 149
V Ecstatic Depictions of Consciousness
Gazing at Ice 161
Dog Soldiers 165
Bizarro World 167
On Two Sentences from Charles D'Ambrosio's "Screenwriter" 171
Remarks Perhaps of Some Assistance to the Reader of Joseph McElroy's Ancient History: A Paraphase 173
VI Thomas Berger and I Have Never Met (Ishiguro, Berger and PKD)
Kazuo Ishiguro 181
The Butler Did It 183
Footnote on Ishiguro 187
High Priest of the Paranoids 189
The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike 197
To Ubik 199
Life After Wartime 201
Thomas Berger 209
Letters from the Invisible Man: My Correspondence with Thomas Berger 213
Footnote on Berger 219
VII OK You Mugs
Heavy Petting 225
More Than Night 229
You Talkin' to Me? 233
New York Characters 237
Lost and Found 241
The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head: A Conversation Between Director Spike Jonze and Critic Perkus Tooth 245
Johnny's Graying Teenaged Sense of What Isn't Boring (Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002) 253
Close Reading (Ricks on Dylan) 259
Rod Serling 265
Mutual Seduction 275
VIII Fan Mail
Carved in Need 281
New Old Friend (A Toast to Kenneth Koch) 285
Eyes Wide Open 289
Something About a Slice 295
To Cosmicomics 305
Anthony Burgess Answers Two Questions 307
A Furtive Exchange 311
Books Are Sandwiches 315