The Books Interview: Jonathan Lethem

Your fiction has been described as "magic realist". Are you happy with the label?
Actually, not at all. I've always resisted the phrase, finding both terms - "magic" and "realist" - shaky at best, with unwelcome or unexamined assumptions camped out all around them. Some of this reaction is deeply rooted: as a child I hated the whole disingenuous kabuki of stage magicians. I identified with "Hot town, summer in the city" but not "Do You Believe In Magic?".

When, as a teenager, I read disreputable pulp forms, I was always clear I liked science fiction, but not fantasy. The nearest I've come is the great excitement I felt at discovering writers like Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges, precursors to the official "magic realism" movement in Latin American fiction, but even then I failed to move on to Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the official standard-bearers. And if you need a label, why not "surrealism"? Or, better, "fiction"?

You often use anthropomorphism in your writing. Were early fabulists like Aesop an influence?
Until you said that, I hadn't remembered how strongly an early reading of Aesop etched itself into my brain. So, now, I'll say yes, absolutely, yes. The earliest anthropomorphic fabulist who remained a consciously remembered influence throughout my growth as a writer is Lewis Carroll - who's probably closer to Aesop than I've ever seen anyone suggest.

Then there are also the American comic-book archetypes.
Well, to be perfectly laborious about it, I'm not sure I'm aware of any archetypes originating exclusively in comic books. That even includes the specific motifs of the costumed hero and the secret identity, each of which has been important to me. But it is the case that I probably had many of my own first encounters with loads of the archetypes available to storytellers in comic books.

How important to you is Brooklyn?
As water to an octopus. Or, in Bernard Malamud's words (when asked why he writes), "I'd be too moved to say."

And Manhattan?
My suspicion seems to be (I had to write Chronic City to know I felt this) that Manhattan, the great secular-commercial metropolis, the world's first and greatest city founded on concepts other than religious or national identity - and therefore a kind of science-fiction city, a conceptual project, a place unnaturally subject to the distorting forces of capital, ideology, projection, wish-fulfilment and so on - has become in effect the human tribe's dry run for virtual reality: a place both persistently real and unreal. Or, an unreal place where real people are living out their existence. So, now that the rest of the world is becoming partly virtual, we're the canary in the coal-mine here in New York. What's gone wrong and right in this place has a special amount to tell us.

It wasn't until your fifth novel that you were first published in the UK. Why do you think it took so long?
Dumb circumstance. I doubt it illuminates anything. Some of your best writers - Iain Sinclair, say, or Gordon Burn - don't "take" here in the United States much or at all, and vice versa. I'm blessed now to be so well represented by Faber.

Your past novels have spun many genres. Do you take a deliberately eclectic approach?
Well, I have a hard time imagining any other way. So the phrase "eclectic approach", (which makes it sound a bit like a hairstyle!) seems to undersell the simple necessities that I experience in the private space between me and my own writing - the urgencies contained in each major project, arriving as they do usually over a period of years, and over which I have no particular powers of control or even prediction.

There has been talk recently of you setting a novel outside of Brooklyn. London, perhaps?
Alas, it takes me five or ten years of living in a place to believe it exists sufficiently to bring it alive in fiction. Which limits me terribly. I haven't had the opportunity to live in London for more than a few weeks at a time, but I find it a very lovely stimulation so far. Speculating on what I'd know or say (or know by saying) when I haven't yet lived in London is an invitation I try to decline.

Jonathan Lethem's "Chronic City" is published by Faber & Faber (£14.99)