Author opens up about pop culture, tattoos and his past

Amid applause of a large crowd of students and faculty, author Jonathan Lethem walked to the stage to take his place at the podium for the latest installment of the Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by ‘ink,’ the English department, the Visiting Writers Series and the Student Finance Board (SFB).

Lethem is an author who jumps genres and attempts to make every novel different in its own right, Jo Carney, chair of the English department, told the audience as she introduced him. Carney quoted Lethem as having said, “I guess that (aspect of my writing) makes me unreliable.”

“We wanted to bring in someone who is important right now, someone who is shaping how people think about contemporary American fiction,” Catie Rosemurgy, assistant professor of English and organizer of the event, said. “Lethem fit that bill. The quality of his writing, plain and simple, both in terms of the precision of his prose and his thinking and in terms of the freshness of his imagination, (make him so influential as a writer).”

Lethem read from a collection of essays called “The Disappointment Artist,” memoirs about himself, all taking place at the time of his mother’s death when he was a teenager. This topic was very personal for him, but he said that he’s overcome the hesitations of sharing information about his personal life.

“It isn’t as though people are asking me intrusive questions,” he said. “Everything that they known about my personal life is because I’ve told them and so I’m very much in control of the dialogue. Things that I wouldn’t want to discuss I haven’t mentioned.”

The memoirs are organized under a title and subheadings, the former being a subject of obsession concerning pop culture and the latter being the year and the condition of his mother’s health.

“I think (the students) enjoyed hearing a famous writer talk about things we can all relate to, (namely) obsessions with favorite songs, bands and movies,” Rosemurgy said.

Lethem’s piece could almost be considered entertainment criticism, although he stresses that he finds it more enjoyable to be the fan rather than the critic.

“I think there’s elements of cultural criticism in these essays, but I think the really predominant part of them are personal memoir pieces,” Lethem said.

He then related the piece to his mother’s death, citing what he discovered from his experiences and his appreciation of her.

“In this case, I did one of the most natural things for me. I’m always most excited about the newest book and this had just come out and I’m very proud of it,” Lethem said. “It’s fresher for me and I haven’t read from it so many times either.”

Besides writing novels and essays, Lethem has written short stories and even songs, although he gave up the latter because of a self-professed lack of singing ability, according to Carney.

“He is a brilliant writer,” Carney said. “He is in part so appealing because his works are so grounded.”

Many of the students in attendance had been studying Lethem’s work in English classes, so they were already familiar with the author’s pieces. “I think it’s great that the class had been studying (my book) because it meant people were not coming in cold,” Lethem said.

After reading his piece and concluding to thunderous applause, Lethem took questions from the audience, ranging from what he is writing now to how he would feel to be chosen by Oprah’s book club, which, for the record, he said would be amazing.

“A night like this is ideal where I’ve got a good microphone and everyone in the room is there to hear the reading and there’s no distractions,” Lethem said. “This is what I like best.”

Sarah Maloney, junior mathematics major and president of ‘ink,’ said she was pleased with the success of the reading and how articulate Lethem was during the question and answer period.

“I’ve heard only good things from students who attended the reading,” she said.

Following the reading, Lethem stayed to sign copies of his books and talk to students, answering additional questions, including one about a tattoo mentioned in his essay.

“It’s of a spray can with the words UBIK (a fictional product) on it and there’s a pink mist coming out of the top of the spray can,” Lethem said. “I thought of it as kind of a good luck charm for a writer to have a literary tattoo.”

Students all expressed their praise for Lethem and his works and their excitement to read his novels and stories. “He touched on many authors I read also,” Anthony Frizano, junior English major, said. “It was very close to home.”

Dan Klein, senior English and secondary education major, agreed and disagreed with Lethem’s points of view. “I thought the reading was exceptional. I was at the edge of my seat,” he said. “I enjoyed the Brian Eno references, but cringed at the mention of taking Tiger Mountain.”

Although not everyone in the audience was familiar with Lethem’s work, his reading definitely created a few new fans. “I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of him, but I’m excited to read his books,” Adriana Fokshey, sophomore psychology major, said.

Overall, the reading was a great success and garnered a large audience for this most recent Visiting Writers Series event.

“I think it was one of the best college readings I’ve ever given (with) the feeling in the room and the number of people,” Lethem said.