The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Jonathan Lethem: Living in the Footprint of this Midcentury Nightmare

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I finally started reading Dissident Gardens this weekend and so I have been catching up on all things Jonathan Lethem. First, there’s Carl Wilson’s recent lengthy interview for the Random House Canada blog Hazlitt:

“I’m writing about how the past isn’t the past—it’s the Faulkner principle, that it isn’t dead, it’s not even past, it’s with us. I think one of my great experiences coming of age and investigating the culture that I took for granted was realizing, okay, so I grew up kind of in a hippie house and I grew up on the Sixties and that cultural awareness, that interest led me very directly back to the late 1950s, all the stuff that in the typical account erupts into the Sixties, right? “Oh, everything was so repressed, and then the beatniks fight against this.” But you have these little glimmers, you have the folk music and you have Rod Serling, you have a Cold War culture that was very tantalizing to me. The stuff that was the precursor to the Sixties.

Well, once you make that insight that the Sixties is really about the Fifties, the next step that’s sort of inevitable is to realize how much everything is still a reaction to the enormous trauma of World War Two, and how we’re living still in the footprint of this midcentury nightmare.”

And there is Mike Doherty’s interview with Lethem for the National Post:

“I’m tough and affectionate towards everything.” This includes his own book, which he admits is so densely packed with ideas and images that “it’s consternating; it’s aggravating. There are plenty of people who want to throw it against the wall.” But in writing it, he says, “I was in the place where a writer most wants to be, right at the very edge of my talent.

Lethem also talked discussed his new book with Leonard Lopate on WNYC:

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(Less than 100 pages in, my love/hate relationship with Lethem continues…)

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2 Comments

  1. “Well, once you make that insight that the Sixties is really about the Fifties, the next step that’s sort of inevitable is to realize how much everything is still a reaction to the enormous trauma of World War Two, and how we’re living still in the footprint of this midcentury nightmare.”

    It’s a good point, and a healthy way to think of contemporary history, which, because we are so convinced we know it well, projects various mystifications onto the modern psyche. It’s also an interesting mental exercise: one could start the “trauma point” at World War One, for example, or the de facto beginnings of the Cold War. The Faulkner quote is apt, and personally one of my favourites.

  2. Hi Finn. I seem to remember there’s some historical argument that the Victorian era didn’t really end until 1914 — that the outbreak and trauma of WWI was a fundamental break from the past, and the (true) start of the 20th century and the modern age. It sounds plausible to me!

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