After Jonathan Lethem, the Bard of Boerum Hill but now a Californian, dissed his hometown in a recent LA Times piece, we reached out to him to find out how it felt to have his betrayal of Brooklyn be compared — and not favorably! — to the Dodgers. Lethem graciously obliged us with this rich, sprawling prose. Enjoy.
You’ve given me barely any time with your surprise questions — a day before you go to press! — yet this seems important enough that I’m going to try, and also try to be neither defensive nor flip (though I will admit that I find the fuss exaggerated by definition, and have responded, every previous time I’ve been asked, by being flip or provocative). I honestly don’t think I’m in a position to break hearts, or if I am I shouldn’t be, except perhaps those of local friends I was in able to hang out with regularly and even bump into on the street, and now can’t — and in that case, the heartbreak’s mutual.
There’s nothing remotely Dodger-like in this, thanks so very much for the promotion, but I’m not denying anyone access to 75 home games every summer, or to anything else — my books exist, and either you care about that or you don’t. I’m just a novelist, slumping through my days trying to do partial justice to the vibrant incoherence of my own experience, and not to propagate too many romantic falsifications along the way — and it makes me sad when I think I’ve failed.
Being “from Brooklyn” has (duh!) meant a tremendous amount to me, more than I could possibly say in 20 novels (two or three written, the rest unwritten, at least yet), and living there again from 1997-2010 (with some substantial interruptions for Maine and Toronto) was also incomparable — rich with ghosts and dense with new experience and, at times when I was briefly hoisted aloft as “the bard of,” solipsistically flattering in a way I can only call, uh, complicated.
New York is and will forever be helplessly a subject of my work (but not the sole subject, and how boring it would be if so), and every time I write about it, I’m likely to end up with something as fiercely ambivalent as the earlier results — ambivalent, of course, in the sense not of muddled-in-the-middle, but of strong contradictory responses. Love-hate is rich as Brooklyn is itself vast and disjointed (and not remotely summed up, I’m obligated to point out, by the point-of-view from Boerum Hill). Have I claimed otherwise? My bad, then. As for “repulsive with writers,” if a reader doesn’t recognize an attempt at humor (not the same as demanding you find it funny), I’m in no position to help.
I’ve always been congenial with writers — here, there, and everywhere — and don’t take “vibrant literary scenes” for granted, but that wasn’t what Brooklyn happened to be, primarily, for me, and, with apologies, literary scenes are possible in a number of places. You only get to be from one place. I tended to be more concerned with that, however, self-regarding that may sound.
As for your last questions [“How are you finding your new job and home? Is there anything you miss about Brooklyn since moving?”], my new job is demanding and wonderful, the weather’s terrific, and yes, of course, I miss absolutely everything about Brooklyn, except perhaps its paradoxical vanity about being slighted. Get over that already, wouldja please?
Or maybe don’t — it’s a signature item.