(Accompanying second Liminalist conversation with Jonathan Lethem)
Everything is about connection, for me at least at this time.
How to find connections that are undiscovered; how to deepen ones that exist; how to restore ones that are broken; how to break ones that feel unhealthy. I can observe at the surface level how so much of what I do is about connecting. The weekly podcast allows for connecting to someone in the liminal space I have created, a space which paradoxically is less liminal because I have created it. The safety of structure that recording (monitoring) brings, the context of deep conversation, means there’s no chance of getting sucked into meaningless and enmeshing dialogues; but also, less chance of a more personal, emotional connection (perhaps), a kind of connection which feels also unsafe.
A recurring pattern from infant-hood is that of being alone, disconnected, abandoned, reaching out for a connection and either being unable to get it or to sustain it, a faulty connection (a drunken mother), or one cruelly severed by a sudden shift in emotions; or worse, a hostile connection, as with my brother. And in all cases, sinking into a deathlike stupor or fleeing into a dissociative fantasy, only coming to life/earth again once the connection is restored in some living way.
Facebook is not connecting; podcasting is not connecting; writing books is not connecting; even sex is not connection. All of these things CAN be the means to connect, but then so can anything at all. Or nothing at all.
The connection is always there. But when attention is on the self and its perceived lack of connection (the self being isolate & discreet), then the connection feels truly lost. Then we get to follow the lack back. Weirdly it’s in the emptiness, not the fullness, that the connection happens. Maybe it’s because we have to be receivers before we can become transmitters?
Empty the cup before trying to fill it
During our second conversation, we discussed Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, a sci-fi parable about a sentient void called Lack that is being scientifically studied. We discussed the parallels with Lethem’s loss of his mother when he was fourteen. I had wanted to suggest to Lethem that his wrenching loss in adolescence might have been a rite of passage that allowed something to happen that so rarely happens for male children in today’s world—a full psychic dis-enmeshment from the mother’s psyche (individuation, in other words). It had occurred to me after our first dialogue that this might be the formative experience that gave Lethem a kind of autonomy that made him a desirable writer-sponsor for me, in my own creative attempts to emerge from a dissociative fantasy of maleness/autonomy into the world at large—to bring about a full working connection between the inside and the outside, the emptiness and that which fills it. Or something.
When I first read As She Climbed Across the Table, I was moved and impressed by both the lightness and the depth, the psychic coherence, of Lethem’s little parable. I sent him an email about it that was really a review of the book. It went like this:
It all begins not with the word, but with listening. Every authentic cry requires a response. The nature of an emptiness is that it echoes, provided the sound reaches all the way to its core. As She Climbed Across the Table is an authentic cry, so, here we are again.
A thought I had in the shower after finishing the book: “Lethem is a messenger whose mission is to undo the fabric of spacetime by placing his attention on all the fatal flaws in it and then wedding his own perceptions to ours (the reader). In other words, a real writer.”
If I’d read As She Climbed Across the Table first of Lethem’s works, our relationship might have developed quite differently. I might have been a FAN.
The hat comes off to you again and underneath is the same old rabbit hole, the one you can never step in twice. As She Climbed Across the Table, as a prototype for Chronic City, is a less mature or textured but also less labored work; and it may reveal more of the author’s psyche because of it.
I found the enjoyment you got from writing As She Climbed Across the Table palpable. It read like a lark, you appeared tickled by your own audacity. It’s an adolescent work, but in a good way—a great way. It reads like you knocked it off in a single, fevered, pizza and Cheetos fueled all-nighter, Dick-style only without the drugs. But for a knock-off, the story is perfect, closer to Coleridge on opium than hackdom, a flawless jewel of symmetrical alchemy, archetypal smoke and mirrors, a dazzling sleight of hand of literary self-exposure in which you are flashing the reader and blinding him at the same time, so we, he, you(?), are never quite sure if we really saw—what you thought I saw.
I felt your presence, your personality, more palpably in the main character than in any of the other books I’ve read. Philip, named after your horse-loving mentor. But it’s fitting also—in a novel about a man who loses himself inside/turns himself into a cosmic vagina, in a desperate quest to regain access to a woman—that you made a surreptitious nod to Dick.
The book is like one of those bizarre science machines that create their own environments to see what happens to particles when the rules of physics are suspended. It reduces the psyche to gracefully manageable proportions (isn’t all art a kind of cartoon?) and seems to encompass everything about human existence and still be a light little divertissement, a bit of literary candy.
And as always, there is that dull, distant hum of despair under the drolleries. Lethemia.
I was struck by this in chap 25, from deTooth (a distant ancestor of Perkus?): “The correct approach to a text as dense and self-consistent and original as Lack is a criticism with all the same qualities.”
I realized then that this was what I had done with Chronic City! From the relevant chapter in Seen & Not Seen:
“Chronic City is a novel about holes, but it itself is also a hole, like Noteless’s memorial, waiting for us to fall (or dive) in. If we step closely enough to its edges, the vacuum at the center will take us. . . . This essay should fit effortlessly and perfectly into the hole at the heart of Chronic City, since that hole was meant only for me, its first and only witness/reader.”
Viral prose reveals the author’s soul and the soul is a hole, a hole whose gravitational pull can’t be counteracted but only met with equal and opposite suction by the observer. That lack meet lack and the fullness gets to fill the space between two absences. No observer or observed, only perception happening.
Non-(fiction) is the gateway to reality as it is un-subjected to (suspended dis-)belief. (Unpack that if you dare.) Belief unsuspended, sinks into the depths; and perception, always winged, now un-ballasted, takes flight.
This all seems fairly in line with what Lethem & I discussed in our second conversation. So much so that I am not sure there’s anything to add that won’t detract from it. That emptiness can be fullness, perhaps, or that loss can be a gain, that a lack can be a presence—all of which speaks to the doubleness of our existence. This idea of doubleness is perhaps what writing is always and inescapably demonstrating, because not only does a written text create a split between the author who writes and the author who is written into the text, it also establishes a connection between two previously separate entities: the psyche that transmits and that which receives. It creates a mirror that can only be filled when what’s reflected in it is sufficiently empty to accept all projections.
Lethem-the-overrated is a much “greater”—more uniquely autonomous—writer than the world can ever receive or reflect. The clutter of the world turns everything into its own tawdry image—being chronically multiple, it can never perceive what is singular.
But one psyche can match the signal, from an isolate space within the margins. And signaling back, it can restore to the original signal its uniqueness.
This requires accepting the invitation of the mirror—which is not to pass through but to turn away from the emptiness, and toward what is full.
Intuitively speaking, that is.