Sunday, July 2, 2023

Jonathan Lethem's The Spray (2004).

I've talked more than once on this site about the concept of Writer's Collectives.  It's what happens when a number of different and disparate author find themselves assembling together in these kind of informal, off and on again groups that will sometimes meet up together, sometimes just to chat, though more often than not, the real goal of these literary gatherings of for the purpose of "talking shop",  or to "compare notes", as the sayings go.  It's roughly the same thing that happens whenever car enthusiasts gather together and discuss the finer details of makes and model, and how well you can get them to run.  The major difference is that here, the topic of discussion often turns to the mechanics of storytelling.  What's the right sort of phrase to use, does this particular scene play well, or does it need some work?  How good is the story at telling itself?  Is it okay, or does it need some sort of shot in the arm?  These are the types of questions that few of the majority in the audience will ever have cause to ask themselves.  The reason for that is because, by and large, most people out there will never have any intrinsic reason to bother themselves about what is the right way to tell a story.  It's a writer's concern, more than anything.

I suppose that's as good an explanation for why guys like Coleridge and Wordsworth would tend to meet up often to critique each others works.  For better or worse, a story never really exists unless it can find an audience.  That's the only way to tell if a creative idea has any life in it, when you can see the reaction of the crowd, and whether they like it or not.  If there's ever any moment when the author has managed to make them smile, laugh, scream, or else just hold their attention spellbound, that's when you know you've at least started to do something right.  Good luck trying to find out whatever that is, because most writing is a lot like a dice game.  You have to throw your hand out there and hope you've landed a good roll.  I guess that's a further explanation for why you get so many cases of ink stained wretches congregating together.  Sometimes you just need someone out there who can tell you whether out not you're doing right or wrong.  An unspoken rule of every one of these collectives that I'm familiar with is that if you want a sympathetic ear that's not just willing to listen, but also have some kind of idea of what it is you're even talking about with your novel or short story (or even something as simple as a mere piece of poetry) then the best person to turn to is someone who toils the same trench.

Hence, history is full of folks like Wordsworth and Coleridge forming the nucleus of the Romantic Movement.  Or else you'll get T.S. Eliot and James Joyce inaugurating what's now known as Literary Modernism.  Or else its Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Dylan Thomas forming the Beat style of writing.  That seems to be the case with the writer I'm here to talk about today.  Jonathan Lethem is best described as one of those obscure household names.  He is (or was?) regarded as kind of big deal amongst "Book People" back in the day.  This was around the time that Neil Gaiman was helping writers see just how many heights a literary artist could scale, provided they had the talent, and, above all, the Imagination necessary to pull a groundbreaking feat such as The Sandman off.  Lethem seems to have been one of the many new creative voices that were emerging roughly at or about the same time, along with other luminaries as Jonathan Carroll, Alan Moore, or Dave Mckean.  The one thing that unites all of them is the type of fiction that they have all helped spawn thanks to the informal Writer's Collective that they each belong to in varying ways.  They are known as the New Wave Fabulists.

I've talked about their efforts here and there in the past on this site, and now with today's offering by Lethem, we have our latest entry from this particular creative group.  There is a bit of a trick involved here, though.  It turns out we're dealing with one of those cases where in order to talk about Lethem's fiction, it kind of helps to know something about his life.  It's a key piece of useful information to have tucked away under the cap if you want to go in with any chance of making sense of his writings.  This is not the same as saying that Lethem is  one of those writers whose books are to obscure for his own good.  That's far from the case.  Instead, one of the first things that became clear to me is that Lethem is one of life's great, unaplogetic, literary avant-gardists.  It's not that his books are difficult to understand, he just likes go a bit "out there" with some of his plots.  How far out are we talking about here?  Well, his first novel is a Science Fiction story with a private eye Noir plot at its center, and one of the recurring characters is a cigarette smoking kangaroo that talks, wears three piece suits, and has fondness for whiskey.  This is something that actually happens in the author's first debut novel, and he just puts it all out there with no apologies, and expects the audience to just roll with it.  It's the kind of fantastical surrealist touches that dot the pages of all his work.  His plots tend to be straightforward for the most part, it's just that now and then, it's like walking through a landscape made by Salvador Dali.

All of this is explained by paying attention to Lethem's childhood.  His was a fundamentally artistic upbringing.  Lethem himself has described it as a bohemian experience that was "thrilling and culturally wide-reaching".  His dad was an avant-garde painter, and while he grew up in Brooklyn with his family, the way his mother is described puts me in mind of a particular type of artistic activist. You know, the kinds of youthful, bright faces that used to dot the landscape of New York's Greenwich Village back in the day.  In other words, Lethem's mom strikes me as the kind of woman who would spend her nights trying to find out if Bob Dylan was playing at any of the local folk music joints, and then by day she'd be keeping in touch with whatever contacts she might have in the Civil Rights movement.  His mother was also Jewish, and if you are unaware of the contributions they made toward the fight for equality in this Country, then someone's obviously been withholding the whole story from you.  The point is Lethem was born, in some ways, into something of the best possible idyllic household for a kid raised in New York.  His mother gave birth to him in 1964, and as was fitting for the time, Lethem's folks were part of an artistic community in what is now the borough or district known as Boerum Hill.

It was there that the future writer was introduced to the realm of the Arts more or less from the start of his existence.  His upbringing meant that by the time he'd entered the school system, Lethem was bound to have already had a pretty good head for reading, painting, and writing on his shoulders.  He lucked out once more in fourth grade, at NYC's P.S. 29.  That's where he met Carmen Farina, one of those teachers who seem to be an unaccountable blessing from on high.  She not only recognized Lethem's burgeoning talent, and encouraged him, she might have also taught of the future author a few of the ropes and tricks he later employed in his published works.  Lethem has listed the music of Bob Dylan, Star Wars, and the fiction of Philip K. Dick as the major influences on his life and books (web).  I think there's one more element that helps explain the way he writes, and its a bit more diffuse and intricate.  The simple way of putting is to claim that Lethem is a product of the entire artistic zeitgeist of the 1960s in or itself.  It was and remains (to my thinking, at least) perhaps the last great time of artistic expansion and experimentation.

It's like there was this kind of willingness to see how far you could get away with pushing the boundaries of artistic expression in all of the major fields; from music; painting; film; books; and cinema.  It's the kind of envelope pushing that required a much more open mindset than the one we currently labor under today.  And no, for the record, there's very little in the way of daring to be had in our current selection of storytelling.  When it's possible to claim that there's a kind of lock-step rote quality to a lot of the major releases and franchises going around, then the last thing we are dealing with is innovation, much less the kind of mindset that would allow artists to break out of the mold and explore new vistas.  It's a further example of the way in which Lethem, once more, just seems to have gotten lucky.  He was able to imbibe the sights and sounds of pop-culture in a way that allowed him to mix high and low art forms together in a method that has since been described as "genre bending".

I think it says something about just how much we've allowed our imaginative capacities to shrink when the search for the perfect free form of literary expression is described in such an unimaginative term.  Lethem himself later came to see it as a label of momentary convenience, and just explained that all he was trying to do was find out how to tell the kind of stories he either wanted or felt he had to write, in whatever way they were meant to be written.  In that sense, all of his works can be described as the search for the perfect form of open art.  In his case, this just tends to result, time and again, in the appearance of occasional surrealistic, inter-textual, meta-commentary touches populating the pages of his secondary worlds.  A good place to start with all of this is by looking at the story up for discussion.

Conclusion: A Good Introductory Primer. 

I've foregone the usual plot summary in this post for a number of reasons.  The first is a simple question of length.  At just five pages in all, what Lethem has written isn't even a short story so much as it's a very brief vignette.  In cinematic terms, this would be like one of those old super short films that would run on networks like HBO or Nickelodeon back during the golden age of cable TV.  They were always meant as these one-off space fillers that would be purchased by the networks just so they could shoehorn them into whatever empty slots they might have had back when they were just finding their sea legs.  Often these short films would feature the kind of surrealist plot lines and animated techniques that make up the entirety of a story like "The Spray".  This is not to say that Lethem's efforts here are light-weight, or anything like that.  On the contrary, I'd argue that this story might be the best starting point for anyone looking for the right gateway into Lethem's secondary worlds.  This kind of approach is ideal not just for the possible challenges some writers pose in terms of the intricacy of their works.  It also helps when dealing with names that cast a big shadow.  Some artists manage to leave an impact so big that it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start in exploring their work and legacies.

Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino are two examples of the phenomena I'm talking about.  Alan Moore, Will Eisner, and Charles Schulz are the same for their respective mediums.  They've all wound up creating such a formative impact that the best course of action is to find the simplest point of entry for the newcomer, and then begin one step at a time.  I'm starting to think that's what stories like "The Spray" are for.  They help the first time reader get oriented in a new secondary world without too much hassle or confusion, while also providing a good introduction to the kind of story the author has to tell.

At it's core. "The Spray" is the account of a burglary experienced by a lower middle class, white collar couple (presumably living somewhere in New York), and the very peculiar aftermath of the break-in.  The burglary itself is a very straightforward affair.  Someone jimmied the lock on the couple's apartment complex.  Whoever it was made their way inside and managed a sizeable five finger discount.  Among the item missing, according to the husband (who is also the narrator), is "a jewelry box that Addie's mother had given us...A...television and fax machine...a Walkman and a camera and a pair of cuff links" among other items (48)".  The interesting part is how none of this matters in and of itself.  Indeed, the burglar is never identified, the missing items are never restored, and the theft itself doesn't even wind up being the main focus of the story.  That honor instead goes to a simple, unassuming item that the police trot in during the course of the otherwise routine investigation of the crime scene.  

This is the titular Spray, and while its effects prove to be somewhat extraordinary, perhaps the most shocking thing (even to the couple at the heart of the story) is that the cops can be so nonchalant in the midst of a demonstration that is, on the face of it, pretty darn miraculous.  What the investigators do is they'll take out the spray can, give it a good shake, and then spritz the apartment.  Covering everything in a fine, invisible film; floor, wall, ceilings, you name it.  The idea of using a modified Lysol can to explore a crime scene is a bit of an off-note in and of itself.  The real tilt out of the land of the norm and into that of the surreal, however, is the effects the contents has on whatever surface it lands on.

"The spray settled through the house...and afterward glowing in various spots were the things that the burglar had taken.  It was a salmon-colored glow.  On the table was a salmon-colored image of a box, a jewelry box that Addie's mother had given us.  There was a salmon-colored glowing television and fax machine in place of the missing ones.  On the shelves the spray showed a Walkman and a camera and a pair of cuff links, salmon-colored and luminous...We walked around the apartment, looking for things.  The eye-tic policeman wrote down the names of the items that appeared...I couldn't smell the spray.  "How long will it last?" we said.

"About a day," said the policeman who'd done the spraying, not the oldest.  "You know you c-can't use this stuff anymore, even though you c-can see it," he said.  "It's gone."  "Try and touch it," said the oldest policeman.  He pointed to the glowing jewelry box.  We did and it wasn't there.  Our hands passed through the visible missing objects (48)".  This odd little gimmick is what passes for the big reveal, or I guess you could call it the story's major set piece, or prop.  Everything else about the crime scene investigation is routine.  Questions are asked about the neighbors, the couple are informed that their intruder wore gloves.  Odds are even this is going to be a difficult to solve without much in the way of any solid leads (which is a case of the author displaying a harsh yet very solid Truth in Television).  The investigators are offered a drink which they all turn down ("Addie had a drink, a martini (49)".  Hands are shaken, the police depart, and the couple are left stranded in their own home, now incomplete with a few family items and memories missing.  Oh yeah, and also there's still that weird, lingering glow of the spray can hanging around.  Creating artificial ghosts out of items that are no longer there (ibid).  It's almost like living in the psychedelic version of a haunted house.

The difference is this time the ghosts are keepsakes, and are even probably floating out there, in some sort of nebulous, low level black market.  Nevertheless, the effects of that spray can offers up the same uncanny sense of being haunted.  The couple appear to have discovered what it's like to be reminded of the past in a visceral way that neither of them was expecting, and as the story goes on its clear that this new form of "haunting" is starting to go to their heads.  The ghastly visitation might be somewhat new, yet its effects are well within the wheelhouse of the traditional Gothic story.  This is proven as the sudden personal crisis brought on by the robbery begins to drive the couple to a breaking point.  It doesn't take long for the narrator to divulge that even before the break-in, things were already a bit less than solid at home.  This is a detail that Lethem spares just enough words on, and nor more.  Here the author is able to showcase what by now was already a sure-handed sense of narrative confidence.

By this point in his career, Lethem knew all about what might be called the art of literary economy.  In other words, how to convey the most meaning out of as few words is possible.  This is where the writer has an opportunity to prove the old maxim that "Brevity is the soul of wit".  At the very least, whenever an author is able to pull this particular trick off, the results may sometimes prove that a few short choice words can go a long way.  Sometimes they can even speak leagues and gulfs of experience.  This kind of artistic performance has often been held up as a gold standard to aspire to.  However, the real truth seems to be that it's just another tool in the writer's repertoire.  There's no shame in admitting that sometimes (probably more often than not, if we're being honest with ourselves) brevity has little choice except to give way to the longer format paragraph description if they story wants to have any chance of survival.  Besides, there's kind of a built-in irony to the phrase, inasmuch as it was coined by none other than just some guy by the name of William Shakespeare, an author who is notorious in English 101 classrooms everywhere for his decided lack of brevity.  And yet his best work sort of mocks the rule.

All of which is to say that none of this gets in the way of the type of story Lethem has to tell.  The writer does nothing more here than find the least amount words necessary to tell his story.  It's a show of skill on the artist's part, and it stops at being just that.  The performance may be admirable, yet all that matters is the story proper.  In this case, those few choice comments by the husband are enough to reveal a marriage that seems on the verge of breaking apart.  One almost gets the sense that we've been allowed to eavesdrop in on a snapshot from the life of the type of mismatched relationship that dots the landscape of Woody Allen films (a subject on which Lethem, if anybody, might know more than a thing or two about).  Or else we've stumbled upon one of James Thurber's unhappy couples as they suffer another miraculous misfortune.  What Lethem's story stresses throughout its runtime, however, is this Gothic, haunted quality.  The intrusion of the unseen burglar, along with the arrival of the policemen with the magic spray can has done the ironic service of bringing the couple's crisis way out in the open.

This sense of crisis is brought to a head when the husband notices something.  The policemen have left the spray can behind.  It's just been sitting there, unnoticed until the narrator draws our attention to it.  That's when things get desperate.  It's age old case of one thing leading to another.  A lot of bitterness and regret starts to generate in the air between the couple.  A bit of snark in unleashed.  With emotions and all kinds of personal disappointments starting to run high, the jab is taken with a bit too much fragility, where in other cases, it would probably just be shrugged off, or treated in jest.  Instead, one of the players wants to know what that's supposed to mean.  The basic reply amounts to: "What you think it means"?  A few more words are exchanged, the temperature in the room starts escalating as sniping morphs into criticism, and criticism soon gives way to recrimination, and backlash.  With this in mind, what happens next might not have been inevitable.  Though it does have this innate sense of a chosen just desserts about it.

All that happens is that the wife, Addie, reaches for the neglected spray can in fit of anger and regret, aiming it straight at the man she thought was a husband.  "I jumped up. "If you spray me I'll spray you," I shouted.  The spray hit me as I moved across the room.  The wet mist fell behind me, like a parachute collapsing in the spot where I'd been, but enough to get on me.  An image of Lucinda formed, glowing and salmon-colored.

"Lucinda was naked.  Her hair was short, like when we were together.  Her head lay on my shoulder, her arms were around my neck, and her body was across my front.  My shirt and jacket.  Her breasts were mashed against me, but I couldn't feel them.  Her knees were across my legs.  I jumped backward but she came with me, radiant and insubstantial.  I turned my head to see her face.  Her expression was peaceful, but her little salmon-colored eyelids were half open.

"Ha!" said Addie.  "I told you it would work."

"GIVE ME THAT!"  I lunged for the spray.  Addie ducked.  I grabbed her arm and pulled her with me onto the couch.  Me and Addie and Lucinda were all there together.  Lucinda placidly naked.  As Addie and I wrestled for the spray we plunged through Lucinda's glowing body, her luminous arms and legs.

"I got my hands on the spray canister.  We both had our hands on it.  Four hands covering the one can.  Then it went off.  One of us pressed the nozzle, I don't know who.  It wasn't Lucinda, anyway (53-4)".

In the end, the couple seems to wind up both condemning and revealing themselves, and the novel ends on this moment of revealed self-disclosure, with the husband and wife (or are they now just man and woman?) unsure of where they are each headed next, whether together, or apart.  Like I said, the whole thing amounts to little more than a vignette on the writer's part.  Now doesn't even count as one of the more original concepts that the author has done.  In a way, though, this is what makes it so fascinating from a readers perspective.  It might not be obvious to most in the audience, however any seasoned fan of the old, pulp Sci-Fi works of the past will be able to spot where this brief blackout sketch came from.  It turns out all Lethem has done is to swipe or deliberately repurpose an idea from a novel by Philip K. Dick.  This is sort of important, and it turns out the old, paranoid SF scribe is sort of the key to Lethem's entire short story.  He's the one element that helps explain all of the others in perspective.

The long story short is that when it comes to Jonathan Lethem, we seem to be dealing with the world's undisputed Philip K. Dick fan.  Now, to be fair, it makes sense that there will be tons of other PKD enthusiasts out there who will be more than happy to dispute that last statement.  All I can say to any of that is, take it up with Lethem, okay?  I'm just here to report on whatever I'm given, or can find out.  And right now, all the available information tells me that what we've got here is this pulp Sci-Fi nerd both cribbing from, and trying to pay homage to his favorite author.  This also appears to be one of the handful of subjects Lethem is more than willing to geek out about at length, if you just give him the space and the time.  Take for instance, the author's introduction to a collection known as Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick.  It's there, in the pages of his introduction to that edited collection that Lethem pretty much sets down all of his views on the more or less creator of Blade Runner as follows:

"On a personal note, I'm proud to make this introduction.  Dick's is a voice that matters to me, a voice I love.  He's one of my life's companions.  As Bob Dylan sang of Lenny Bruce, he's gone, but his spirit lingers on and on (xi)".  This is a statement that Lethem has solidly backed up in his short story.  The key giveaway here lies in the conspicuous presence of that incredible, miraculous spray can.  It's a story prop if one ever existed.  Yet what matters for the purposes of his story is that Lethem has borrowed the item (almost "wholesale" if you will) from a PKD novel by the name of Ubik.  It's a novel that details (or at least it "appears" to catalogue) the aftermath of a deadly act of sabotage, leaving the protagonists stranded in a world in which it seems as if reality itself can be reshaped with the simple application of the unexplainable contents of a simple cane of spray.  This is the "Ubik" of the novel's title, and it's amazing how much satirical and paranoiac fun PKD is able to squeeze out of just one, single stage prop.  Lethem's ambitions are a lot more circumscribed than Kindred's.  His action is confined to the single stage set of a New York apartment complex.  It's really just a two actor drama.  And to top it all off, there's the fact that the author can only take the borrowed premise so far under his own effort.

I think it's telling, for instance, that Lethem's story doesn't grant PKD's spray can the same level of reality warping powers as his original source text.  Instead, this time the ubiquitous prop acts more like as little more than a Twilight Zone equivalent of a fail proof lie detector test.  When applied to mere objects, all it does is show what might be missing from its proper place.  When it's used on human beings, however, it appears that it can potentially reveal the past transgressions or regrets of those it comes into contact with.  This version of Ubik can't be said to ever really alter reality, as such.  Instead, it's much more that the real world remains the same as it ever was.  It's just that this time the spray can is capable of revealing those aspect of life that its users might have otherwise preferred to keep hidden from themselves and others.  When the truth is shown, however, is when the real trouble starts.  What's interesting to note, however, is that even here, when the same prop is being used with the volume turned down, Lethem still manages to capture a lot of the particular themes that Philip Dick wrote about in his own stories.  This is something that Lethem himself can help us understand a little bit further.

In using the work of Philip Kindred to compose what amounts to his own vignette homage, Lethem winds up drawing inspiration from two, crucial tap root sources.  Each of them stem from PKD's own creative artistry.  It's the "second set of motifs Dick employed" that Lethem seems to be using as the first basis for his short story.  This he describes as "a perfectly typical 1950s obsession with the images of the suburbs, the consumer, the bureaucrat, and with the plight of small men struggling under the imperatives of capitalism (viii)".  Another way to say it is that Lethem has taken one set of PKD tropes, namely those associated with the kind of lifestyle that was lampooned and satirized by shows like Mad Men, with its cast of characters at the mercy of a monstrous process of pretty much their own creation, and the conflicts this creates in both their public and private lives.  These are the struggles of what were known in Dick's time as the Men in Gray Flannel Suits, which is pretty much the required uniform of the unfortunate Don Draper and his fellow office drones.  

Much like the Mad Men series, Lethem has shifted the focus of this modern form of cubicle malaise to the high rise apartment setting of the Big Apple, as opposed to Dick's more suburbanite settings, encompassed as they are on all sides by the Californian wilderness (an aspect of the Sci-Fi author's life which might, in retrospect, have helped him develop his own version of the Martian landscape).  In Lethem's case, its just an example of the author playing into the trope of "write what you know".  Both writers were familiar with the potential lack of fulfillment that comes from being at the mercy of modern Corporatism.  Dick knew it as it existed in the phrase "To Live and Die in L.A."  

Lethem has experienced this same conundrum as it exists on Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets".  Each of them, however, are reaching similar conclusions.  However, both also seem less than content to leave their seemingly realist situations as they initially stand.  In each of their cases, it doesn't take long before some inciting incident comes along with the ability set off a chain reaction that sooner or later will pull both the rug out from under their suffering, everyman and woman protagonist, while also revealing hints of greater cosmic revelations (for either better or worse, or sometimes a combination of both at once) on the nature of reality itself.  This is the second aspect of Lethem's inspiration.  Once again, this is something he has borrowed from the writings of his favorite Sci-Fi scribe.

According to Lethem, PKD's primary accomplishment "was to turn the materials of American pulp-style science fiction into a vocabulary for a remarkably personal vision of paranoia and dislocation.  It's a vision as yearning and anxious as Kafka's, if considerably more homely.  It's also as funny.  Dick is a kitchen-sink surrealist, gaining energy and invention from a mad piling of pulp SF tropes-and cliches- into his fiction: time travel, extrasensory powers, tentacled aliens, ray guns, androids, and robots (vii)".  This also includes the make believe prop of a spray can with miraculous powers.  It amounts to the same item being put to similar uses by different authors.  Each of them utilizes the trappings of the fantastic to act as a commentary on the nature of and problems of people in a modern society.  

When taken together, both of these elements of PKD's writing combine to make up the literary well from which Lethem has drawn inspiration for his own story.  It's little more than an homage, rather than anything else.  There is at least one big special effect going on in the narrative, and yet its all in the service of an author trying to pay tribute to one of his main artistic inspirations.  In that regard, "The Spray" does work as a dedication from a fan to his favorite writer.  In terms of Lethem's own artistry, it's just a small stone thrown into a larger body of work.  However, for the purposes of this blog, it seemed like the best place to start mapping out a much larger, more deliberately surrealistic terrain.  Lethem is the kind of writer who likes to experiment with his work.  That's a polite way of saying he's never met an obtuse angle that he didn't like.  He's the kind of guy who, if he sees an oblique avenue in which his story can go, he'll make a literary U-turn and veer off down that  unexplored alley.  In practice, this means we're dealing with the kind of author who lets the story take him wherever it wants to go.  There's nothing abnormal about that.  It's standard operating procedure for most writers, in fact.

The thing about Lethem is that taking the oblique angle means he's the kind of author who doesn't mind taking his readers on as many side trips through Weirdsville USA as he pleases.  This is not the same calling Lethem a difficult writer.  Indeed, there is a lot about his short stories and novels that places him on the same shelf as writers like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.  The difference is that while there's a great deal of overlap between the three of them, there's bound to be a reason why Gaiman and Moore are more or less household names, while Lethem fits more into an obscure niche.  This is where comparing notes between the three writers can help clear up just what more you can expect from the author of a story like "Spray Can".  In the strictest sense, it's not out of bounds to say that all Lethem is doing is following in Moore and Gaiman's footsteps.  All three have been able to find new ways of bringing the old tropes of Fantasy fiction into the contemporary scene.  What separates the creators of Sandman and Watchmen from the guy who wrote Fortress of Solitude might best be described as "accessibility".

A great deal of what makes both Gaiman and Moore so well liked by legions of fans is that while it's true that they never write down to their readers, they also don't leave them clueless, and scratching their heads.  Even their wildest flights of fancy are written or designed in ways that the average reader can follow along.  Indeed, if you stop and examine the vast output of Gaiman's work, then what you've got is the kind of narrator who tells stories that are never too far from the same wheelhouse as that operated by authors like Stephen King and Peter Straub.  Like the people who made Salem's Lot and Ghost Story, Gaiman is no stranger to exploring the darker corners of human culture and history.  The major addition that he brings to the table is that he will just as often shift or blur the usual Gothic focus so as to not just let the light in, but also transition a work of Horror into a flight of pure Fantasy.  This kind of narrative strategy is best on display in his Dreaming series.  Each story in that cycle will lead the reader on through all kinds of imaginary landscapes and scenarios.  Yet Gaiman keeps finding ways of making his imaginary situations digestible and comprehensive for his audiences.  Moore, meanwhile, went out of his way to provide his readers with neat illustrations of every one of his creative ideas.  In doing so, each writer was able to make himself available to their readers in a generous and accessible way.

Lethem tends to veer off from this approach of narrative accessibility.  It should be noted this is not the same as saying he's a bad writer.  It's just that sometimes there are lingering questions over whether he's getting too clever for his own good.  This also doesn't mean I'm accusing him of being a snob.  If you meet the guy in person, what you'll find is the prototypical picture of a pop culture nerd eager to share his enthusiasms.  The last thing you can call anyone like that is a snob.  It's just that I think he gets carried away with his excitement for literary experimentation ever so often.  It's a trait he shares in an ironic way with the late (yet undeniably great) Peter Straub.  I once spoke of the latter author as someone who sounded, on occasion, as if he was always to trying write a story with the notion that a high class critic from magazines like The New Yorker was always about to peer over his shoulder, and judge him on how "sophisticated" his efforts were.  Lethem strikes me as suffering from this exact same case of literary inferiority complex.  This is not a judgment call on stories written in a sophisticated manner.  In fact, if any writer can find a way to do that, they have my blessing.  I just hope they make sure to never lose sight of the ultimate maxim of creative writing.  The story is the boss, above all else.

This applies just as well to techniques of style as it does to various other narrative tricks that guys like Lethem try to apply in their fiction.  All of which is to say that every writer needs to keep his focus on what happens in the plot.  This is a rule that Moore and Gaiman recognize on an instinctive level.  I get the impression that Lethem also agrees with this notion.  Yet he often seems to forget it sometimes in the execution of his own stories.  He'll become so enamored with being artistically clever, that he'll sometimes get carried away with pulling off a slight-of-hand trick at the expense of the all important narrative and its momentum and overall point.  The one pitfall Jonathan Lethem has to beware of is that in getting too clever for his own good, he's in danger of falling into the trap of mere empty naval gazing, or what's worse, trotting out a literary trick for sake of pure, egoistic, self-display, rather than remembering its all there to serve the purpose of telling as good a story as possible.

Again, however, this is not the same as calling him a bad writer.  Whenever he remembers that the story comes first, Lethem can prove himself to be a pretty capable fantasist.  You may have to be on your guard in case he drops a narrative thread in favor of parlor games.  However, this is less of a problem than you might expect.  I have chosen "Spray Can" as the starting point for this author.  The reason is pretty obvious, if you've been paying attention.  Lethem is the kind of writer who likes to keep readers on their guard, and reading as close as possible.  In that sense, he's always looking to challenge his readers and himself.  This can make a for a reading experience that is as difficult as it can be rewarding.  

With this in mind, it's safe to say he's the kind of writer to likes to turn his stories into labyrinths for his readers to wander through.  Someone like that often demands that the reader have a helpful guide to assist them along the journey through the book.  That's sort of where essays like this one come in.  It's purpose is to find the best possible first introduction to the kind of writer Jon Lethem is, and the type of stories he likes to tell.  It also helps if you can find a beginner's sample that's small enough to digest, while also hinting at further avenues of exploration.  For all of these reasons, I think a story like "Spray Can" is the best introduction you can find.  It's mysterious, yet it draws you into its secondary world with a dash of kitchen sink surrealism that is endearing as it is beguiling.  It's the best possible way I know of getting a reader introduced to the cool and crazy jazz riff worlds of Jonathan Lethem.

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