Jonathan Lethem on What’s Stuck in His Head

This week’s story, “Narrowing Valley,” is a metafictional exploration of an earlier story, “Narrow Valley,” by R. A. Lafferty, which was first published in 1966 and then included in Robert Silverberg’s 1973 anthology “Other Dimensions.” It’s the second story from the anthology that you’ve used as a departure point for your own fiction. Why did you choose this one?

Easy answer: because it was the second story in the anthology. About ten years ago, I came up with a plan to write a cycle of stories that were responses to each of the ten stories in Silverberg’s anthology, and I set out doing it in order. At the present rate, I’ll finish in 2062.

The tougher question you now probably want to ask is: why? Long story. “Other Dimensions” haunted my imagination. It was a book that another kid (name forgotten) loaned me to read, in fifth grade, at P.S. 29. I distinctly remember walking home with it along Kane Street, reading on the sidewalk. A jacketless hardcover, so it had a particularly generic/mysterious valency. And at that point I hadn’t heard of any of the ten writers. (Silverberg included one of his own stories, so there were just ten names to not-know.) I not only read the stories; I cooked them into a quadrant of my brain that I want to call “my literary preconscious,” though maybe I should just say “my sensibility.” A few of the stories I must have read four or five times over. They seemed to link up, though of course they’re not linked. But for me they conjoined, making a map of the unreal world which I employed to navigate the unreal world in my brain.

Then the kid (name forgotten) asked for it back. For decades, I never knew what it was, or what it was named, or who’d written the stories. I recalled it as a series of dreams. I’d occasionally blunder across one of the stories in another context. Both the Robert Heinlein story that appeared in the book, “—And He Built a Crooked House—,” and another, by Alfred Bester, called “Disappearing Act,” are considered S.F. classics, and were widely anthologized elsewhere in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. (I just checked and found seven anthologies with the Bester story.) But the individual stories seemed to me incomplete somehow, away from their true home. I longed to know what else was in the book. I searched for it a bit, but I was searching for it incorrectly, because I remembered the name Terry Carr, who wrote one of the stories that I loved most, and thought he was the editor. Carr edited many anthologies, so if I searched in indexes I found those, but not this one. Eventually, somebody with an encyclopedic brain for such things set me straight that Silverberg was the editor. And then it was simple: I went on the Internet and ordered a copy from a used-book seller on Abe. It cost a couple of bucks.

But this was decades later. By that time, I’d moved through many phases. First, reading S.F. in a more lucid, daylight way, knowing the names and chronologies that made sense of some of the surrealist bewilderment I’d experienced at that first immersion. I’d become a fan of Bester and Heinlein. I’d read and either cared for or not especially cared for others on the book’s contents page: Lafferty (a favorite), Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley G. Weinbaum, etc. I’d befriended Silverberg and met Carr once before he died, at a convention in Oakland. I’d published S.F. stories myself, in the traditional magazines. Then, as my reading life changed, my writing changed, too. I’d—sort of—moved out of S.F. into other literary communities, though I still wrote fantastical stuff and felt that the affiliation was obvious. Having “Other Dimensions” placed back in my hands after so long was like finding a storehouse of ancient film footage of my own youthful brain transmogrifying.

When the magazine published “The Crooked House,” in 2021, which was your reimagining of Robert Heinlein’s story, you mentioned that you had six or seven pages of a rough draft of this story. How close is this final version to that initial draft? Did it take you long to figure out the structure and the voice?

I threw those away, though a Winnebago had appeared. I kept the Winnebago and threw out the rest. I had to step back, hesitate, think. Place the impulse in a kind of suspension. Something almost like pickling the material in a brine of doubts about the story’s own attempt to exist. The piece I wrote—the structure and voice—is pretty much just a record of that reaction.

In Lafferty’s story, a white family attempts to homestead land that had originally been given to a Pawnee Indian named Clarence Big-Saddle. The land reveals itself to be a spatial anomaly, and, ultimately, shrinks and flattens the family when they attempt to enter it. In your story, a white family is rumbling westward in a Winnebago across “stolen Tongva land.” The narrator, a white male writer, observes that “the story is headed into crisis, because the family must—as in Lafferty’s original—meet an Indian.” Do you think there’ll be readers who’ll object to what you’re doing in this story, and will feel that Native American characters are being used as a prop in a narrative that centers on a white man?

I’m grateful that you put this question directly, rather than leaving it present only by implication. The obvious answer is yes. The tone I struck here—that of nervous guilty riffing in the treacherous realm of “appropriation”—may seem almost to beg a reader’s own anxieties into play. Or a reader’s condemnation. That risk is one of the subjects of the story, really. I hope that saying this doesn’t come off in any way as blasé, let alone defiant. The irreducible historical trauma (and vast collective culpability) that would make the background for such an objection to the story isn’t subject to dismissal.

I was an amazed reader of Zadie Smith’s “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction” when it was published in the New York Review of Books, in 2019. Despite its subtitle, Smith’s essay isn’t some exercise in intransigent advocacy for fiction’s carte blanche. Instead, she reflects humbly on her own position as a reader and writer trained in expectations and practices that find themselves placed under new pressure by evolving ethical notions, here in the twenty-first century.

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