Who are your favorite New Yorkers?
Jonathan Lethem: How many do I get? Let’s see, Dawn Powell. You’ll notice that, even with the first one, I haven’t restricted myself to people born in the city, since I think this place is so often defined by its adopted citizens. In a nod to my childhood self, I’ll say Tom Seaver. Bella Abzug. I’ll squeeze in one more. I’m even doing well on gender balance. Who rounds out that trio? Walt Whitman. Definitely Walt Whitman.
What’s the biggest thing that has happened in the city during the past 13 years?
Jonathan Lethem: That’s interesting. That period is almost exactly how long ago I moved back to New York, so that’s a funny window for me to consider. I guess, unmistakably, the mallification of Manhattan. The transformation of Manhattan into a commodified virtual replica of itself. How’s that?
Searing. What’s your favorite place or thing in New York? Your own Fortress of Solitude, if you will?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, I have a secret writing studio right now, and I guess that would qualify. It overlooks the Gowanus Canal, facing west. I have a kind of Brooklyn skyline with a Manhattan skyline behind it. Which is, you know, from my perspective, a classic meditative view across the river.
No view of Jersey?
Jonathan Lethem: No, I don’t see any New Jersey. Nor do I see the distant glow of China and Japan, as in the New Yorker cover.
What is your favorite moment in New York? Where were you and what was happening?
Jonathan Lethem: Growing up here, there is this sudden expansion of your reality into the largeness of the city. It’s hard for me not to reach to some very early cognitive, adrenal rush. Like walking into the dinosaur room at the Museum of Natural History for the first time. Or when my grandmother took me down to the water to see the tall ships flooding the harbor at the bicentennial in 1976. It’s hard for anything in my adult life to rival those sudden moments of the enormous implications of history and what a crossroads of human life this place is.
Aren’t things just more vivid when you’re a kid?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, I have a weakness for childhood epiphany. I think I’ve probably revealed that by now.
What’s the future of New York? What are your hopes, and what needs to happen?
Jonathan Lethem: Oh my God. That is really impossible. For me, the meaning of this place has always been in its incompleteness. Its ability to be sort of always wrecked and gentrified simultaneously, and neither process is ever dominant. If I’m hoping for a future, it’s more of the same. That it remains somehow untamable or irretrievable. Always with a bit of a frontier, even if it’s a moving frontier.
You don’t hope for the demallification of the city?
Jonathan Lethem: Fortunately, you’ve reached me in Brooklyn, and I am looking out through a coffee-shop window at a scene that, for all that this place has been altered by money, it also has this entrenched, peculiar undertow of juxtaposed cultures and classes. I don’t think that strangeness is eradicable. Here, anyway. Sometimes I worry that it’s really on the ropes in Manhattan.
Is it weird to have your home constantly in flux?
Jonathan Lethem: I happen to live on the block that I grew up on, which is embarrassing to admit because it sounds like too much of a fetish. My block has changed enormously over the years, and everyone is kind of struck by that fact, but I tend to see the continuity. As much as I’ve written about and given testimony to the changes, when I walk down the street what overwhelms me is the unchangeability. The deep meaning that these buildings and these streets imprint on human life, and the way that there are guys still sitting on street corners that were approximately there when I was 12 years old.
If you could have a drink with anyone else on this Top 40 list, whom would it be? Derek Jeter, Junot Díaz, Adam Rapp, Spider-Man, Jay-Z or Richard Serra…?
Jonathan Lethem: That’s a funny group. Well, I’m a stone Mets fan, so Jeter is just the symbol of tyranny and I wouldn’t want to have such a disagreeable encounter. Junot Díaz is way too accessible. I’ll probably end up having coffee with him without any special magic having to happen. So I guess I’ll pick Spider-Man. Richard Serra seems a little severe.
What would you talk to him about?
Jonathan Lethem: I’d probably end up reminiscing with him about his childhood in Queens, and what the city was like in 1974 or something. I hope he’d want to go that far back with me. That’s certainly how far back I go with him. It’s not so much Spider-Man circa now that I have a charged relationship with. But Serra is interesting; I have a kind of quasi-Serra character in this new book I’ve just been finishing. This creator of abysmal public monuments that people kind of look on with shock and awe, as if they’re almost terrorist acts. Which is an exaggeration; Serra’s work isn’t as ominous as all that. My Serra-derived public sculptor specializes in these giant chasms, and destroyed zones in the city as a piece of public art, reminding people of terrorism and chaos.
New novel, eh?
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, it doesn’t even have a title, so I’m not even offering you a way to plug it. I’m just finishing this very long, morbid novel about Manhattan.
You worked on the comic Omega the Unknown. Is it tough to transition back and forth between mediums?
Jonathan Lethem: Well, any of the side projects I do, like Omega—which was a fairly substantial one—are small work compared to writing a long novel. I spend most of my time hammering away at the blank pages of fiction. I’m very proud of the comic books, but the real work on that was done more than a year ago, and it’s the artist who really has to labor over the pages. A comic book writer gets off pretty light.
What does Time Out mean to you?
Jonathan Lethem: [Laughs] I love the way Time Out kind of conquered New York. I remember it from London—for a tourist it was so seminal. I remember depending on it in London. And then when they announced that there was going to be a Time Out New York, I vividly recall the scorn. Oh, how could they imagine that there’s room for this in a city that has the Voice and New York magazine and whatever they regarded as the essential weekly. Everyone said that it wouldn’t work. And here it is, working perfectly, exactly as it did in London. I think this is the second time that I’ve been anointed on some kind of magical list by you guys. Years ago, Time Out New York did “100 talents to watch,” or something, and it was again this totally big shaggy list—although I don’t think Spider-Man was on it, in this case—and I got to go to this party, and I remember talking with Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was sort of this dark-horse younger writer.
Complete this sentence: New York is…
Jonathan Lethem: Oh God. Too much?
Next: Lisa Phillips >
The New York 40:
Kiki & Herb
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Upright Citizens Brigade