The Jonathan Lethem reading I went to Friday---the closing event for this year's Fall for the Book Celebration at GMU---was a lot of fun. A staff member of the event----who (ahem) didn't introduce himself at all---opened the event by stating that Fall for the Book was about putting living writers on the same level as rock starts and using their event to give readers the chance to put a real face to the person behind the words. Lethem, in the writer-garb of the day with a sport coat, jeans and leather clogs, finally approached the stage and accepted the very first Mason Award, an award that celebrates "an author whose body of work has made extraordinary contributions to bringing literature to a wide reading public". Although no one said so, I took this as a nod to Lethem's skill at appropriating styles and themes from sci-fi, fantasy, crime fic and comic books to mainstream lit.
Lethem then launched into a reading of a short story entitled "The King of Sentences", a short story he had just finished with earlier that day. The story focuses on Clea and an unnamed narrator obsessed with words. By day they work together in a bookstore, looking down on their customers with complete disdain because they couldn't possibly understand the power and beauty of the books they were purchases with their paltry dollars. By night they read, write and pretty much achieve sexual gratification by exploring wonderfully constructed sentences. The pair decide to seek out their favorite writer, a reclusive older fellow living in upstate New York who we only know as The King of Sentences. This author reminded me a lot of J.D. Salinger, or at least what we know of Salinger: reclusive, irascible, and brilliant. It's a wacky piece and has a lot of fun with concepts like the powers of words, fandom, and the nature of a public image. I could easily see it fitting in at McSweeney's or some other equally irreverent lit mag.
Lethem stuck around for another 15 minutes or so to answer questions. I'd say about 2/3 of the audience was made of undergrads from George Mason University, many of whom recently read Lethem's novel Motherless Brooklyn for one of their literature classes. An odd choice, I thought---it does some interesting things but it's not my favorite novel of his. Anyway, several questions focuses on that novel. But other people asked him about other works, about the essay "The Ecstacy of Influence" he wrote for Harper's Magazine that attacks current laws and concepts of intellectual property, his thoughts on sci-fi, and if he sees himself as part of a "zeitgeist" of current male novelists who deal with similar subjects in similar ways (he doesn't).
I had a great time. There are still some things he said that are swirling around in my head---particularly the idea of creative influence---that I'll probably post about here after thinking on them some more. Until next time....