Jonathan Lethem

Portrait Jonathan Lethem
© Hartwig Klappert

Jonathan Lethem was born in New York, USA, in 1964. He spent the early years of his childhood in Kansas City.  At the beginning of the 1970’s his father, the avantgarde painter Richard Brown Lethem, moved with his family to the, then still fully decrepit, New York neighbourhood of Brooklyn, populated predominantly by blacks and Puerto Ricans.  The experience of his adolescence on the Brooklyn streets, in which he belonged to a white minority, had a lasting effect on him.  After finishing school he went to study Liberal Arts at Bennington College in Vermont, though he soon gave this up in favour of a career in writing.  In 1984 he moved to Berkeley, on the West Coast, and for several years lived in San Francisco, where he worked in various antique shops and wrote short stories and his first novel.  He has published many short stories in publications such as ‘The Paris Review’ and ‘Esquire’. In 1994 his first novel, ‘Gun, With Occasional Music’, came out.  It is a fantastical genre cross-over which unfolds in a futuristic and surrealistic setting in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s ‘hardboiled’ detective stories. Then followed the post-apocalyptic novel ‘Amnesia Moon’ (1995) and ‘As She Climbed Across the Table’ (1997), a grotesque love story between a female scientist and a vacuum which is the result of an experiment.  Another work was ‘Girl in Landscape’ (1998), a Western which takes place on Mars. In 1996 Jonathan Lethem decided to return to Brooklyn, where he wrote his novel ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ (1999), for which he won awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award.  The protagonist of this unusual crime story is Lionel Essrog, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome.  His uncontrollable compulsion to repeat: obscene wordgames, abrupt movements, and other tics make him an outsider.  When his friend and role model Frank Minna, a Brooklyn criminal with ties to the mafia and Zen monks, is stabbed to death, Lionel tries to solve the murder. Another novel, ‘The Fortress of Solitude’ (2003), also takes place in Brooklyn.  It is a semi-autobiographical story about growing up in Brooklyn.  Dylan Ebdus, the protagonist, does not have an easy time of being the only young white kid in his neighbourhood.  His black friend Mingus Rude shows him how one gets on in this world: comic superheroes, hip hop, graffiti, and drugs.  ‘The Fortress of Solitude’ was elected ‘Best Book of the Year 2003’ by ‘The New York Times’. Jonathan Lethem lives in Brooklyn.

© international literature festival berlin