Jim Fleming: Jonathan Lethem is one of America's most admired literary novelists. A winner of the National Book Critic Circle's Award, among others. Not the kind of author you'd expect to champion a sci-fi writer. But Lethem counts Philip K. Dick as one of his literary heroes. So it's only fitting that Lethem is helping to keep Dick's legacy alive through his work as the editor of the Library of America's three-volume box set, "The Philip K. Dick Collection." It's a set of 13 of Dick's best science fiction novels, as chosen by Lethem. Dick is the first science fiction writer to be featured in the Library of America series. Jonathan Lethem talks about how Dick viewed his career.
Jonathan Lethem: Well, he was a very divided soul about whether or not he had accomplished what he initially set out to do as a writer because he had very strong ambitions as regard to the literary mainstream. He wanted to become legitimate and worked very, very hard and quite hopelessly in the 1950s and early 60s, writing a string of realist novels that went unpublished at the time. And when he finally gave up that attempt and, in a sense, put all of that energy completely into the science fiction, which he thought of as a kind of way to pay the bills or a kind of a slightly embarrassing side career, suddenly the books in the 60s become much much better because it's as though he has merged his mainstream ambition with his science fictional imaginative material. And so he becomes, very quickly, a writer, you know, I think unprecedented in that field or anywhere. Someone with a lot of, I guess you'd say, emotional and psychologically realistic impulses and very strong confessional impulses. I mean, he writes autobiographically again and again and again without it being obvious that he is doing so. But also one of the most extraordinarily weird imaginations ever given to a literary writer. You know, you can look to Kafka or Borges or someone like, I don't know, Kobo Abe or Salman Rushdie. There's really almost no one with as many simply wild ideas and wild images available to them as Dick had.
Fleming: And he thought about the psychological reasoning that went behind this. One of the things about science fiction in the 50s that seems more true now is that it didn't focus as much on the characters. But Philip Dick really did focus on the characters in his novels and what they were feeling and thinking and how the world affected them.
Lethem: Well, I think that the form of character that Dick specialized in, truthfully, was almost a helpless symptom of his own personal intensity. He wrote about angry, confused, overwhelmed, sensitive, yearning little men who felt at the mercy of this future that was coming and that he was describing. And he did so because in many ways he was a very turbulent, very sensitive, very helpless individual and he poured himself onto the page and so thatâ€™s the kind of realism that he specialized in.
Fleming: You have written about this, in fact, in your essay, "Crazy Friend."
Lethem: Yes I have written about Dick again and again and never felt that I'd completely gotten got it right because he is such an important presence in the constellation of my own influences I could never stop thinking about him in a way and in some ways I'm essay by essay backing into writing some huge completely unsatisfying book about Philip K. Dick in all of these attempts. And this is the most recent one
Fleming: Well, there's a section that I'm hoping you will read for us, in fact, that is related to what you were just talking about. It's how Dick saw his characters.
Leetham: Yeah, let me try. Dick tended to give his characters powerful but unsteady father figures. Often resembling Dick's boss Herb Holiss at Art Music. This is a shop that Dick worked at when he was briefly employed before becoming a full time writer. Men both bullying and charismatic, generous and treacherous. Another version of this archetype recurs in the films of Orson Welles, with the "big father" often played by Welles himself as Falstaff or Kane or Hank Quinlan. I've fooled with this motif myself. Most obviously in "Motherless Brooklyn"'s Frank Minna character. But more often have defaulted in my writing to a primary relationship more like siblings or friends Pairs linked by bonds of guilt, yearning, and mutual betrayal. This may be typical of the difference between the post war boomer generation of which Dick was part. Those whose parents were toughened by the Depression and World War 2. And my generation, we who experienced the questing, self-revising boomers as our parents. For myself and my friend Jake, there were times when our parents were less like parents and more like crazy friends. As a result our friendships involved a measure of mutual parenting. Or at least, since mutual parenting was really impossible, the impulse to rescue one another from our parents' squishy legacies. And truly, for all my reverence, I never really looked at Philip K. Dick as a literary father. More like a brilliant older brother whose brave and also sometimes half-assed forays charted wild paths for me to follow.
Fleming: He's an important figure in your life, isn't he? He's part of the reason that youâ€™ve gone full tilt into writing.
Lethem: Yes, I first began writing fiction thinking that the only thing to do, the best thing to do, and taking it as my appointment in some way was to try to carry on his work.
I wanted to write books exactly like the ones he didn't live long enough to write.
Which of course is a really odd assignment to give yourself given that he'd written over 40 of the things and probably wrote every kind of book that he was destined to. But I somehow saw his work as unfinished and it was going to be my job to carry it on.
Fleming: Jonathan Lethe is a novelist. He is also the editor of the Library of America's three-volume box set, "The Philip K. Dick Collection." We will hear from Lethem again at the end of the program.