“Lethem is one of our most perceptive cultural critics, conversant in both the high and low realms, his insights buffeted by his descriptive imagination.”
—The Los Angeles Times Book Review
Jonathan Lethem’s genre-defying fiction weaves the conventions of noirs, westerns, science fiction, and graphic novels into something both evocative and wholly original. He is the author of more than a dozen books—including the much-lauded novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude—and the winner of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.
Describing his 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 award-winning Motherless Brooklyn is Lethem’s breakthrough novel, a detective story ceaselessly interrupted by outbursts from its highly unconventional narrator, a Tourettes-plagued private investigator named Lionell Essrog. Combining noirish literary tropes with a punch of the unpredictable, Motherless Brooklyn boasts “dialogue [that] crackles with caustic hilarity… Jonathan Lethem is a verbal performance artist… [Motherless Brooklyn is] unexpectedly moving” (The Boston Globe). Wrote The Denver Post, “Jonathan Lethem has turned a genre on its ear. He doesn’t just push the envelope, he gives it a swift kick.” Motherless Brooklyn was adapted into a film directed by Edward Norton, starring Norton, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Writing for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers calls the film “an ardent and ambitious triumph for writer-producer-director-star Norton…Motherless Brooklyn offers a home to the striving mind and heart.”
The Fortress of Solitude, which was adapted for the stage by the Public Theater, depicts the intricate codes of childhood street life Lethem navigated growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, when the neighborhood was rife with race and class tensions. Chronic City, a New York Times Best Book of 2009, unfolds in an alternate-universe Manhattan, following a burned-out child star and a pop culture critic as they uncover mysteries and pursue truth. The tragicomic A Gambler’s Anatomy is the “pleasantly bizarre” (Publishers Weekly) tale of an international backgammon hustler juggling an existential crisis and a blinding tumor. Other novels include The Feral Detective, a neo-Western detective story; You Don’t Love Me Yet, a raucous romantic farce that explores the paradoxes of love and art; and Dissident Gardens, an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals.
Lethem’s nonfiction, which includes essays on writing and music, is as compelling and observant as his fiction. With Kevin Dettmar, Lethem edited Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop From Elvis to Jay Z. The New York Times Book Review called it “excellent. . . . A feast of rock writing, freewheelin’, funny, and deep.” In More Alive and Less Lonely, Lethem offers us a decade’s work of his incisive, passionate writing on writing. “Lethem is literature’s ultimate fanboy,” wrote The New York Times Book Review. “His earnestness is satisfying, but it’s his vulnerability, his willingness to expose his own flaws, that endears… Lethem’s words remind of us of our own rabid fandoms.”
Up next is The Arrest, forthcoming in November 2020, an utterly original postapocalyptic yarn about two siblings, the man that came between them, and a nuclear-powered super car. The Arrest isn’t post-apocalypse. It isn’t a dystopia. It isn’t a utopia. It’s just what happens when much of what we take for granted—cars, guns, computers, and airplanes, for starters—quits working. Before the Arrest, Sandy Duplessis had a reasonably good life as a screenwriter in L.A. An old college friend and writing partner, the charismatic and malicious Peter Todbaum, had become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. That didn’t hurt. Now, post-Arrest, nothing is what it was. Sandy, who calls himself Journeyman, has landed in rural Maine. There he assists the butcher and delivers the food grown by his sister, Maddy, at her organic farm. But then Todbaum shows up in an extraordinary vehicle: a retrofitted tunnel-digger powered by a nuclear reactor. Todbaum has spent the Arrest smashing his way across a fragmented and phantasmagorical United States, trailing enmities all the way. Plopping back into the siblings’ life with his usual odious panache, his motives are entirely unclear. Can it be that Todbaum wants to produce one more extravaganza? Whatever he’s up to, it may fall to Journeyman to stop him.
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. He also served as a guest director at the 45th Annual Telluride Film Festival. He is at work on a new novel, slated for release in late 2020.