Award-winning novelist, essayist and journalist Jonathan Lethem provided USC students and faculty with tremendous insight into his meticulous writing process at a crowded Doheny Library. He read aloud an excerpt from his upcoming fictional novel about neurosurgery on Thursday.
Lethem’s reading, with its precise medical jargon, gave the viewer a window into the egotistical perspective of the eccentric neurosurgeon Doctor Beranger as he performs a brain surgery to treat a tumor. The passage, which constantly describes the face of the patient that is altered by the surgery, acts as a metaphor for the many uncontrollable challenges facing the individual and dramatizes the themes of time and humanism in an era when surgeons have the “God-like” power to save someone’s life.
In a Q&A after the reading, Lethem, author of critically acclaimed novels such as The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, and Dissident Gardens, said that he does not use outlines or charts or take notes when he is planning a novel but that he sensitively visualizes and anticipates his novels’ topics and characters five years before writing anything down. Lethem, who is revered for creating obscure characters like Beranger or Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn who battles Tourette Syndome while solving a murder mystery, admitted that he draws on inspiration from the many “weird” people and experiences in his own life during this visualization process. For his upcoming book, Lethem recounted many life-saving trips to the hospital during his childhood illness for inspiration. Moreover, Lethem mentioned an example when he himself was at a hospital chapel waiting for someone he loved in neurosurgery when he described a few doctors who had come in to give him an update as, “Children, amazed with themselves and high beyond any drug trip that you could imagine; they were so high on where they were. It’s beautiful really, because it keeps them attentive and completely obsessed with this crazy and meticulous life saving thing. So, I wanted it to be drowning in technical jargon but I wanted to give a sense that they are on a total crazy high that is like an LSD trip.”
Lethem, although a famed essayist and journalist, admitted that he views himself as a novelist. He believes this because when he isn’t in the process of writing a novel he is writing one in his head. Lethem said that while journalistic or essay assignments have always been a literary response to something that happened in his life like, The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology on the Subject of Memory Loss, the compulsiveness of his reading attention and the meaningfulness of the immensely different types of novels to him caused a type of self-acceptance and realization that being a novelist was what he was born to do.
Lethem acknowledged that it is hard for him not to identify the main characters in all of his books with his own personality, and that this transfixed plight of the Beranger character to tune out the outside world in order to engage in his profession, mirrors his methods when writing a novel. Like Beranger who Lethem describes as an “old hippie” for listening to Jimi Hendrix throughout the day-long surgery, Lethem said that being a novelist causes him to exist in a kind of “cultural time stop” because he does not have time to know what other people think and talk about. And like his socks-and-Birkenstocks wearing character, Lethem said that because surgeons are such vain people, it is something that troubles them obscurely.
“Surgeons became God when God died. When the barber or the dentist went in to get your tumor or cut your leg off and see, you were all just helpless puppets of a cosmic plan,” Lethem said. “But once we entered modernity, there was this vacuum that swept all kinds of propositional God-like figures and I think that the surgeon who can save your life is one of those.”
Lethem, whose collection of essays The Ecstasy of Influence was referred to by USC English Professor Geoff Dyer in the introductory speech as, “one of the stupendous feats of intellectual conjuring which I have come across in the last several years,” Dyer said that Lethem dedicated endless hours to researching medical journals of surgeons writing about other surgeons’ intrepid facial surgeries. Because many of these journals were recorded audibly after the surgery when one surgeon would dictate the names of the technical medical proceedings from a taped video, Lethem said he was able to learn the language that was solely concerned with technical medical terms, which allowed him to add the metaphors about the landscape of the brain through his own prose.
“I like my novels to contain a lot me and a lot of different things,” Lethem said. “I want them to be like little worlds.”
Because of its critical acclaim and immensely popular reception, Lethem’s 2000 novel Motherless Brooklyn has been optioned by actor Ed Norton to adapt it to the big screen. And while Nick Hudson, a freshman majoring in narrative studies, said he went to the lecture in anticipation of the film, he also hopes that it can justly portray the fun and fast-paced Joycean word play that awarded the novel with the National Books Critics Award for Fiction.
“It was great to hear what Lethem had to say about Motherless Brooklyn because it contains such intellectual themes that proves his deep knowledge or research to achieve such mastery of the subject,” Hudson said. “I loved how it played with the genre of a detective thriller and added a nuanced exoskeleton in its plot through its main character with Tourette’s. It will be a fun film for sure.”
Lethem added that while all but one of his novels have been connected to making some kind of film, the fact that none have been done yet inspires him to continue to write novels. And although he said that he cannot think of a person better than Norton to play the part of Lionel, he admitted that he could live without seeing the possible disappointment of a poorly made attempt to do so.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that professor Geoff Dyer referred to Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence as “one of the stupidest feats of intellectual conjuring.” He said it was one of the stupendous feats of intellectual conjuring. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.