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The Writing Life

When a character in your novel is not just one person, but a grand mosaic of everyone you know.

By Jonathan Lethem
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page BW05

I'm on stage, after giving a reading, blinking in confusion again at a question I've been asked by a member of the audience. The question is one I anticipated and rehearsed answering for years before I was ever faced with it -- and which, as it happens, I've answered aloud in public a few dozen times already by now. You'd think I'd know the answer to it. You'd think I'd have memorized the better answers I've given in the past, might have honed a version of a sincere reply I'd be comfortable offering up, or else honed a lie or jape or confection to stand in its place, one to entertain the audience and the question's asker, and in the process distract them from noticing I'd avoided the question. Or (I can hear you suggesting) I might simply reply with humble unrehearsed honesty, as if the question had never occurred to me before but was certainly worthy of an answer. The difficulty is that at this moment I can no longer recall what I believe to be the truth.

The question (in so many words) is this: "Is there a real person on whom your character Perkus Tooth is based?"

_____Live Discussion_____
Author Jonathan Lethem takes your questions, Tuesday, 2 ET

Well. There are so many ways to fail to completely answer this question, but I do have to pick one and open my mouth. My inclination, always, is to say "yes" -- not just to this, but to any public question that might be seen to set its answerer on the defensive; to absorb the anxiety of my audience, all those others waiting to see how this question will be answered and whether they ought to become uncomfortable, by being agreeable, by taking the question as an opportunity to say something that dissipates confrontation rather than meeting it head-on. Perhaps this can be seen as a form of verbal judo, though it's not designed to land the question's asker in a vulnerable position, flat on the floor with my knee at their throat. It's far more generous than that -- and more, it's a route of honesty, not a strategy for avoiding honesty. I might say (and I have): Yes, Perkus Tooth is based on real persons -- not one, but several. The crowd, at this, will exhale in relief. I continue: There are at least half a dozen people I had in mind, as I created this composite character -- each of whom might rightly recognize himself in Perkus Tooth and feel, I hope, a certain proprietary excitement, a thrill of connection to my life and my book. I didn't, I hope, violate anyone's privacy, yet if these various friends were to step up and ask me whether Perkus Tooth was based on them, I'd never be able to pretend otherwise.

But there are other honest answers that this one denies. How can I explain at the same time that Perkus Tooth, while in his externals resembling those various friends who might be encouraged to recognize themselves, in other deep aspects of his nature is based on others -- or perhaps just one other -- who would never be capable of recognizing it, or of being recognized? Perhaps this other is a different race or age or sex from my character. Perhaps he or she has nothing "in common" except for the feeling I hold for them, a soul-connection, like the karmic link between a beggar in Kashmir reincarnated as a banker in London. This is a secret I find difficult, not to confess, but to describe persuasively: how Perkus Tooth might be, for instance, my mother. But he is. On certain days that truth seems truer than any other.

This thought, however, leads quite inevitably to another. This other thought I've offered up, from time to time: Perkus Tooth, like all my characters, is helpless to be anyone but myself. Though hardly original to me (as Flaubert would have said, "Perkus Tooth, c'est moi"), this has the advantage of being highly satisfying as well as distracting. Once an audience of readers has been led to dwell on the mysterious solipsistic helplessness of the novelist's powers -- I am incapable, with words and sentences, with speculations, of stealing anyone else's soul, and equally incapable of keeping from constantly stealing my own -- minor questions of resemblance seem petty by comparison. The lineaments of my characters' bodies, their hearts. their brains, their talk and also their unspoken thoughts, are all only flutterings of my imagination, flickers of my fingers on a keyboard.

So that reply, too, is a brand of honesty I can offer up without withering my self-respect. The problem, though -- the thing I'd explain if only I could -- is that while it's right to remind a reader that a character is a chimera, a shadow, a glance, far less in substance than even the shallowest human being who ever lived, it's equally true that most characters are dwelling-places for dozens of human lives, containers for much more than a description of a single person. These notions may seem to contradict one another, but they don't. Philip Roth has pointed out, rightly, that a writer only begins by basing his or her work on some real person or event. It's everything that follows, everything the writer elaborates after that point, that makes it worth reading, that makes it, maybe, literature.

Another problem, of course, is that I, at least, learn so much from my betters that you may as well call me a plagiarist: Perkus Tooth wouldn't exist without the precedent of the character Rudolph Menthol, from Rufus Firefly's great novel Years Between Islands. Each time I lift Firefly's book from my shelf and reread even a page, I'm struck by this thought, one I'd be unlikely to mention in public. Sure, my character's based on another person, but a fictional one, not a real one. Some days I'm certain that's the truth.

Then again, as I stand there looking for an answer to the question, wondering which truth I'll tell, I can't help but think of my friend Garrett Fearing, my old dear friend Garrett, who, come to think of it, I really ought to call one of these days. Another friend recently mentioned he'd seen Garrett at a party, that Garrett had been drinking, and that in his somewhat drunken state he'd claimed to a small group of others that Perkus Tooth was based on him, irrefutably and completely. By doing so, Garrett was making a boast, but also a plea for sympathy and recognition. Claiming Perkus Tooth's sorrows as his own, Garrett enunciated a wish that his friends and mine, we who so often flinch from Garrett's demands, his unruly needs, accord to him some of the empathy Perkus Tooth had earned from my readers. That, damn it, we ought to view Garrett Fearing as we view Perkus Tooth, as grand and tragic, and as worthy of redemption, even if redemption had not yet quite been attained.

Here's another truth: If Perkus Tooth is me and you and a whole bunch of other guys, if I am the walrus and you are the eggman and goo goo ga joob, Perkus Tooth may nevertheless, in certain telling ways, in the breadth of his ungainly journey across the earth's surface, be in fact a little more Garrett Fearing than he is anyone else. At the very least he was absolutely so in that moment when Garrett Fearing read my book and recognized himself, and felt the twist of pride and shame he surely felt then. Certainly, I'd never argue otherwise.

Jonathan Lethem | Chameleon

"My plan," says Jonathan Lethem, "is to write a different book every time out." That is harder than it sounds in an industry that urges novelists to cultivate their readers. "I suppose," he adds, "that makes me unreliable."

And unreliable is. Note, for instance, that there is no character in his novels named Perkus Tooth, as he would have you believe in his essay above. Note, too, that there is no such writer as Rufus Firefly; no book called Years Between Islands.

His novels leap from voice to voice, head to head, past to future. His first, Gun, With Occasional Music, was science fiction noir, featuring animal gangs and a zany private investigator. His second, Amnesia Moon, was a post-apocalyptic story about a survivor in Hatfork, Wyo. Then came As She Climbed Across the Table, a spoof of Alice in Wonderland; and Girl in Landscape, told from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl. His latest novels, Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, play out on the same streets but are polar opposites: One is the jumpy story of a detective with Tourette's Syndrome, the other a shambling saga about a white boy, a black friend and the big issues. There is love in both books, there is murder, and, standing behind it all -- Brooklyn, like a straight man in the drama, ragged and stoical.

Lethem first saw light of day in Manhattan -- in what is now a fashionable block in SoHo but was then, 41 years ago, an illegal loft on West Broadway. His father was a painter, his mother "a folksinger, groupie, Greenwich Village kid." She was 20 when he was born. Raised in the lively home of these gregarious, flamboyant, always fascinating, occasionally temperamental people, he became, as he puts it, "a devout worshiper in the church of culture."

He always imagined he would become a painter like his father, and, as a boy, wore that ambition with some flourish. But at 14, when his mother died of a brain tumor and he was left in the care of his father's "semi-commune" in Brooklyn, he began to gravitate toward an art that seemed cleaner, safer, less distressing. He began to write -- to aspire to the cool, remote prose of Borges, the spareness of Raymond Chandler, the insight of Graham Greene, the originality of Kafka. After graduating from Bennington College, he took off for California, where he was a bookstore clerk for almost 10 years. Throughout, he submitted his stories to magazines. At 29, he got lucky: The manuscript of Gun, With Occasional Music was picked up over the transom. A year later, it was published.

His steady rise in American letters would suggest that no matter what he writes, his readers will stick around and look to him for surprises. And perhaps that is because, although his work has been called experimental and post-modern, a strong core of humanity underlies it.

His most recent book, Men and Cartoons, is a collection of wildly different stories. Next month, he will release The Disappointment Artist, a mix of personal essays and cultural commentary. He is now at work on a novel of love between two aging Bohemians, a light romantic comedy set in L.A.

Where does he get that ability to reinvent himself constantly? "Perhaps it's a lesson I learned from my father," he says. "To him, painting was nothing exotic. It was something he did every day. It was prosaic art, in the best sense." It's that attitude that serves writers so well. When the process is utterly comfortable and when a writer has a firm hold on his identity, the stories, the characters, the plot lines -- everything else -- can change.

-- Marie Arana

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