David Shields will speak with Lethem about his new novel, which is about bodies and surgery.
Jonathan Lethem makes an appearance tomorrow night at Hugo House in conversation with David Shields. Jonn Herschend

Point of order: Is it “Lee-them” or “Leh-them” Or “Lay-them?”

Find Out How Seattle’s Westland Distillery Is Turning The World Of Whiskey Upside Down.
Get to know the world-renowned whiskey distillery in your own backyard.

“Lee-thum”—like “Lethal." Constant issue (not that it matters).

How are you doing? Still teaching at Pomona?

Yes, they've golden handcuffs here—tenure, I mean. Living the dream. I'm a suburban dad in paradise, reliant on discontent from remote factions in my consciousness.

Do you need that discontent in order to feel ALIVE? Is there no discontent in the dream?

Not to feel alive, I think—that’s pretty much automatic, as easy as getting out of bed. But the novels are fueled by it. And yes, I'm actually oversimplifying: there's plenty of discontent in the dream!

Seems like you can find plenty of discontent online. There’s lots of all-caps anger going on there. Is that fuel enough, in addition to the pinch of the handcuffs?

That's the wrong flavor for me. Or at least I only need/tolerate it like a homeopathic tincture: a leeeeetle bit goes a looooong way.

Online anger is the St. John’s wort of activism? Er…discontent?

Oh, I'm not claiming to have accomplished any activism! Mere "activity" is enough for me. It's not that I don't have political sentiments, but—sometimes to my great chagrin—they seem to come out ironized, puzzled, stranged ... larded over with "negative capability."

You speak my truth. I wonder how much of that response has to do with my white-maleness.

Well, it is surely—and rightly—not our time. At last. And yes, that can leave one wondering what the work to do is, as a member of the subset. I often think about what I'd most wanted from Obama, when he arrived—that he disassemble "Presidential Power". And how unlikely it was ever to happen. The art of relinquishment (or unmastering) is hard to master. Surely you'd want to avoid anything so fatuous as a "listening tour" — doesn't every single thing come out sounding like an exhibition of privilege?

But my personal pretzeling was created long before, in being the product of a righteous generation of leftists who both transformed the world and were utterly rebuffed and defeated. I could contemplate the paradox forever, if I'm not careful.

Everything does sound like an exhibition of privilege, even my saying so! Is there some weird masochistic pleasure in it, though? It’s a privilege to know it’s a privilege, I guess.

And the leftist's self-devouring doubt is our greatest badge of shame and honor simultaneously—for, watching the enemy (we'll assume we know who we mean), isn't our greatest wish that they achieve or even attempt some self-examination?

You mentioned that it’s rightly and at last not “our time,” with “our” meaning white guys like you and me. In the poetry world, at least, in an effort to destroy white supremacy and colonialism, some groups are calling for white men to stop writing altogether. Is the only way to master the art of relinquishment to just stop? To stop producing cultural artifacts all together? (Now that I think of it, it’s a mischaracterization to say that the Mongrel Coalition, for instance, wants all white people to stop writing. But I am interested in whether or not we should stop taking up space, whether or not that’s the only conclusion.)

Ha! Here I am giving an interview, taking up crucial space. Well, that's definitely a nice cold cocktail in the face from the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, impossible to disqualify on the terms with which it was tossed, and as a member of the collective entity known as White Men Historically I say we deserve it now and for the next hundred centuries at least. I say, "May I have another, sir?"

Alas or fortunately, I do not write as member of that or any other collective entity, I write as a feeble alienated worm who needs a cup of coffee before crawling under a rock to make decorations in my portion of mud and sewage—and whether you pry up my rock to have a gander at what forms I have created in my squalor and despair is up to you. I mean, we can all manage such dialectal thinking, can't we? Mine being to say that as an American and on several other scores I had damn well better be alert and reparations-minded about all sorts of automatic chunks of complicity, but as a self-pitying explorer with a pen I can remain an Individual Loser, and hotly outraged on my own behalf.

Does any of this have to do with your conversation with David Shields at Hugo House tomorrow?

Nothing, that I know of—but since I don't know where the conversation with David will go, maybe!

I'll be reading a sequence from the new novel-in-progress, which has a whole lot to do with bodies and face, surfaces and depths, and surgery—surgery, specifically, in the part I'll read.

How much of the surgery stuff is about stealing corpses?

Zero, that I can say confidently. But I do think of this as a "horror novel,” in a certain arty, Cronenbergian way.

Support The Stranger

Why this focus on “the body?”

More and more I've found myself trying to push the novel closer to 'the body’—somatic stuff, eating and fucking and dying. You know, you could read a thousand pages of Henry James and never once know what they've had to eat.

I'm still shy about sending my characters to the bathroom.

This trumpkin is scary enough. Please vote.
Then score some dank herb from Ruckus to help with the stress.