Lucinda, his protagonist, hears people's complaints over the phone as part of an art installation. One day she falls for one particular voice, who she dubs "The Complainer," whose elegant and biting musings on life and sex touch her core. They eventually meet and have sex. He, through a series of events, imbeds himself into her band, an outfit just-this-close to its big break (though they can't pick a name for the group). The other members are colorful enough -- the enigmatic and moody lead singer works as a zookeeper, the drummer works at a masturbation sex shop called No Shame, a lyricist who suffers writer's block -- and it all leads to a big mess for each of them, making it abundantly clear that Lethem, with these luckless, yet fruitful, characters, had a lot of fun writing this book.
"I guess I'm just old enough now that I've seen my own twenties in a kind of light," Lethem says. "I guess I was thinking a lot of the part of life where you're kind of a wannabe, where everyone's kind of a fake, trying on different selves, outfits, changing partners. Everything seems important and permanent, and then it changes constantly."
For the book's setting, Lethem returns to the place that hosted his earlier, earlier work -- the West Coast. "It was great," he says of the change. "I needed to leave Brooklyn alone for a while. With L.A., I'm not an expert -- I've never lived there. I was reconnecting with the irresponsible part of the writing life, the game-playing, the being open to serendipitous occurrences."
Lethem says that, after The Fortress of Solitude, moving to lighter fare was necessary. "It was inevitable. If you look at a road map to serious writing careers, usually if you do something as tortuous and monumental as Fortress you're not supposed to shift into other modes -- like I should be Faulkner, write 20 novels about Brooklyn."
He uses a picture of himself on the book's jacket, though he says the work isn't entirely autobiographical. "Like Fortress of Solitude, everything and nothing," he says. "I couldn't pretend there wasn't a part of me in every part of the book -- confessional in some ways, but also transmuted and made strange by fiction, decisions I made, things I combined it with... I can see my hand inside all the puppets -- I know there's a confession of myself in Lucinda, but also in Bedwin [the band's lyricist with writer's block] and in Matthew [the zookeeper]. It's so funny the way I put a picture of myself on the jacket -- it teases at the idea that I'm in there somewhere, and I know I am, but not one-on-one."
It's obvious in the book that Lethem truly cherishes these characters he's created. "I adore them," he says. "It's so funny, [somebody asked me] `Isn't the female bass player kind of a man's fantasy,' and I'm like `Yes, of course! I want to have sex with all these characters, they're all attractive to me!' There's something so appealing about unfinished people -- in the way that when you're in your forties you have a crush on all the young people around you."
Lethem -- who believes The Fortress of Solitude is still his best book -- says he enjoys writing novels the most, as opposed to his fine essay and short-fiction work. "The thing I love most is writing a novel, dwelling in that world," he says. "I love short fiction and essays, because you finish quickly, you have that sense of discharging an assignment. With novels you have to wait so long for that feeling of accomplishment." He says that he writes every day, but not quite at a rapid-fire pace. "I'm steady more than quick. I'm quite slow -- if I write three pages in a day, that's enormous. One is typical. But I try to persist -- I write that one, every day. When I hear people talking about finishing drafts in weeks, writing 20 pages a day, it's boggling."
Lethem's working on a new novel, but he says it's difficult to talk about. "I'm going back to New York, but not Brooklyn. Manhattan. It's contemporary and dark and strange, rather than [having] a nostalgic quality. It's present day, with an undertone of terror. I like it so far."
This story first appeared in Chicago's Newcity.