“Lethem is one of our most perceptive cultural critics, conversant in both the high and low realms, his insights buffeted by his descriptive imagination.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
Jonathan Lethem’s genre-bending fiction weaves the conventions of noir mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and comic books into coming-of-age tales that are evocative and wholly original. He is the author of over a dozen books—including the much lauded novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude—and the winner of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.
The award-winning Motherless Brooklyn is Lethem’s breakthrough novel, a detective story that is ceaselessly interrupted by outbursts from its highly unconventional narrator, a Tourettes-plagued private investigator named Lionell Essrog. Combining the literary tropes of the noir genre with a punch of the unpredictable, the Boston Globe says that “the dialogue crackles with caustic hilarity…Jonathan Lethem is a verbal performance artist…[Motherless Brooklyn is] unexpectedly moving.”Chronic City, a New York Times Best Book of 2009, unfolds in an alternative-reality Manhattan, centering around the lives of a burned-out child star and a pop culture critic as they uncover mysteries and pursue truth.
By orchestrating such allusions to popular genres within his fiction, Lethem heightens emotional engagement with his characters, blurs boundaries across a broad spectrum of cultural creations, and expands the frontier of American fiction. In describing his own work, Lethem says, “Everything I write is informed by genre traditions, which I love deeply. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve written without straining against genre boundaries, and I’ve often violated them outright. I think my work reveals traces of an extremely eclectic reading history, and my narrative is also particularly informed by film. But my dearest models are nearly all twentieth-century Americans pursuing high art through popular forms.”
The Fortress of Solitude, which was adapted for the stage by the Public Theater, depicts the intricate codes of childhood street life he navigated while growing up in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn during the 1970s, a time when the neighborhood was gentrifying and rife with race and class tensions. Other novels include You Don’t Love Me Yet, a raucous romantic farce that explores the paradoxes of love and art; and Dissident Gardens, a New York Times Notable Book of 2013, is an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals.
In 2011, Lethem published two works that took him beyond the novel: The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, the final work of the epic science fiction writer, which he culled from thousands of pages of typed and hand-written notes, journal entries, letters, and story sketches with co-editor with Pamela Jackson; and The Ecstasy of Influence, a major collection of Lethem’s essays and cultural critiques. Since then, he also authored the 10-part revival of the popular 1970s Marvel comic Omega the Unknown. Lethem’s recent Lucky Alan and Other Stories proved once again that he is a master of the short form as well as the novel.
He now returns to novel-writing with the tragicomic A Gambler’s Anatomy, a “pleasantly bizarre” (Publishers Weekly) tale about an international backgammon hustler juggling an existential crisis and a blinding tumor. “The book is classic Lethem,” says the National Post, “it defies genre, a comedic, literary page-turner as capable of commenting on the excesses of American culture as it is of landing jokes at the expense of the hypocritical anarchists of Telegraph Avenue.” The New York Times named it as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2016.
In the spring of 2010, Lethem was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Pratt Institute and became the second Roy E. Disney Chair in Creative Writing at Pomona College, succeeding David Foster Wallace. Lethem’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times, The Paris Review, the Believer, Granta, and McSweeney’s.