Jonathan Lethem

Oh dear Lord, now that I’ve typed his name up there, I feel like I will be expected to write a literary essay, coupled with genre pop culture street cred, and we all know that isn’t going to happen.

‘Chronic City’ was the first novel of his I read. What was this and why hadn’t I heard of this dude before? I liked all the crazy bits, the insane drilling tiger huge machine, the astronaut blocked from returning to earth by the Chinese*, the black hole on Earth (that’s how I thought of it), the critic bloke with all the hoarded stuff%. I thought it was maybe a tiny bit too long, and (dare I say it) too  many drugs, but that’s me.#

Sometimes, I try to be a completist. Philip K Dick – now I had read him before the formal introduction by my mate Stephen, because Cheso library had a copy of ‘Martian Timeslip’, and I can remember reading it on a long car trip and thinking, this is different, and I really like this. But they had nothing else at the time, so he didn’t stick. Then at our lab desk in Chemistry my mate Stephen was talking to Stevie (a different person – hey I was one of 3 x Davids in my first class at school) about Palmer Eldritch and other stuff and I said, hey I know that writer and it started. So we’d scour bookshops for random editions, trying to hoover everything up. And then in my mature years when I had a few dollars, I came across a hardcover of selections from Dick’s Exegesis, and I know even as a selection I am only going to dip into it occasionally, I’m not going to read it. And there is Mr Lethem on the cover, as editor.  Later on, I found out that he didn’t just scour bookshops, he worked in second hand bookshops, and had a zillion copies of each Dick.  (I worked in a fruit shop in high school, packing potatoes three afternoons a week. Every day filthy up to my elbows and all over my face. And you got used to the earthy smell, so that sometimes when a sack had been left in the rain and the contents were rotted, you did not notice until it was too late. 40 kg of rotten potato mush, and your arm is in it up to the shoulder. Disgusting. Later, watching I don’t know say a James Herriot type film and a vet has his arm right up either a cow’s arse or a cow’s vagina, everyone else vomits, but I just nod in recognition. But I digress.) This bloke was me, if I lived in New York instead of Australia, and had the nouse to get a job in a book shop. And stuff.

I read some more of him. We lived in Europe for reasons. The bookstore up the street in Den Haag had a lovely English language section. It was there that I discovered Jane Gardam. They had “The Disappointment Artist”. I liked that. Cool essays. Funny stuff. Clever.# In the American Book Center, I found a copy of “Unlucky Alan”.

Some life event or other@, I decided to reward myself. I thought, I shall buy some books that I normally wouldn’t, because, expensive, insufficient value for pages. The books were books about records – “Freedom of Choice” by Evie Nagy about the DEVO album, and “Fear of Music” by Mr Lethem, about the Talking Heads album. We like the same music! I saw Talking Heads on their Stop Making Sense tour at Narara` in 1984! I saw David Byrne two years ago on his American Utopia tour!

Hey! We’d be friends.

Except …

He writes properly about the music, with interesting personal anecdotes, with no references to rotten potatoes. And there is a reference to driving with a friend who claims some funk group that predates Talking Heads is derivative of them, and now I know, THAT WOULD BE ME, I would be that friend who doesn’t know enough. I don’t want to be THAT friend. Maybe I should reconsider that friendship.

But he likes the movies that I do. He wrote a book about THEY LIVE! That’s a great film. I didn’t write a book about it, but I have the DVD AND a t-shirt. (My son bought the shirt for me for my birthday.)

And I find more strange books by him that I like, such as ‘The Feral Detective’^ …

Mr Lethem’s “More Alive and Less Lonely” arrived from The Book Depository the other day. Subtitle “On Books and Writers”. I’m flicking through it. He met Anthony Burgess. He spoke to Anthony Burgess! He pissed off Anthony Burgess, then talked to him about PHILIP K DICK. I have a couple of shelves of Anthony Burgess. In my head, Anthony Burgess was my friend.

I’m jealous.

Mr Lethem writes about moving to California after PKD died. My mate Stephen and I were going to do that, well not after he died, we wanted to go before he died, and we’d talk to him about … I don’t have a clue. At that age, I would not have been able to start that conversation. Mr Lethem writes in an afterword to Dr Bloodmoney that “I could have easily searched out members of the circle of writers and other friends who’d surrounded him in those last years, in lieu of meeting the man I’d originally meant to visit in person”. Well, I couldn’t have.

Australian television had a version of Celebrity Squares in the 1970s, hosted by Graham Kennedy wearing shirts with wide collars that stuck out over the very wide lapels of his jackets. There was a celebrity named Stuart Wagstaff, a suave Englishman who used to advertise Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, who regularly appeared. My family was walking through Wynyard railway station in Sydney one day, when my little sister ran away. She had seen Mr Wagstaff in the crowd. She ran up to him and asked, are you Stuart Wagstaff? He stopped and politely agreed that he was. Silence ensued. He then told her it was lovely to meet her, and went on his way. Looking back, I think he was very decent. At the time, I am sure my brother and I were more interested in making fun of our sister over the whole thing .$ That would have been me with PKD if I had managed to bump into him. Oh, it was hard enough to manage to talk to girls+, let alone heroes.

I am enjoying going through “More Alive and Less Lonely”. Mr Lethem writes so well and knowledgeably about books and writers. I like it when I pick up on the casual references, coz that means I’m clever. Norman Spinrad – yeah, he’s one of mine, Bug Jack Baron, and my mate Stephen and I were the only kids~ at our skool kool enough to have tracked down and read “The Iron Dream”. But the reality is, some I have heard of, many I have not. I don’t know all of these writers. I suspect that some of these little articles and reviews will be introductions to writers I will read later. But there are so many. I can never catch up. I don’t know all about the music and all the writers. Somewhere, without knowing it, I slipped behind. Way behind. And now it is too late.

I spent too much time watching Celebrity Squares=.

Don’t be like me, kids. Don’t make the mistakes I did.



*its going to happen – make sure you are on the right side of the wall when it goes up – or around

%what can I say, I can’t check the detail, I gave my copy away to my mate Stephen&

& my wife does not understand why I have so many books. (She is an ex-librarian. Recovering librarian? Librarians HATE books. They THROW them away. They don’t want their husbands to have any.) She encourages me to give them away. We were married for 19 years before it worked, because we moved house. And then we moved overseas twice. I usually give them to my mate Stephen. And crime novels and thrillers to my mother. That’s the safest, for then I know where they are.

#there you go, that’s me reviewing a book

@ I mean this can be pathetic, I may have rewarded myself for starting yet another job, or leaving a job, or for a half birthday, or not running out of a job interview.

`Simple Minds. The Pretenders (in place of U2, who I saw later that year. When they weren’t old.). INXS. Eurythmics. I was bored by a lot of them. I stayed in a tent. It rained. Everyone was soaked. People kept trying to sell me “trips”. I bumped into my brother, who was with some friends. I was on my own – violins out please. I said, hey do people keep coming up and trying to sell you “trips”. At that, a man turned around to us both and said “Wanna buy some trips?” We didn’t.

^ Dear Reader, I have been pottering away at a novel entitled “The **** Detective” since 1998. Its not asterisks, I just don’t want to tell you the word.

$ For that is what we did, all the time, to each other.

+ I am beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that Mr Lethem did not have the difficulty talking to girls that I did. My jealousy grows.

~ We were nerds. Hell, we went to the movies and saw Revenge of the Nerds together. And even laughed.

= And Revenge of the Nerds.


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