March 27, 2017
Christopher Boucher on what it was like editing Jonathan Lethem’s More Alive and Less Lonely
by Christopher Boucher
Some books open you up — they read you, imprint themselves on you. Such was the case with Jonathan Lethem’s new collection of nonfiction, More Alive and Less Lonely, which I had the pleasure of editing and writing an introduction for. The book has served as a sort of readerly trail guide for me over the past year or so; maybe it’ll become one for you as well.
This project began in December 2015, when a mutual friend put me in contact with Lethem to discuss the idea of working together on a book of nonfiction. Lethem sent me seventy or so essays to review, and I devoured them all — just as I had his last collection of nonfiction, 2012’s The Ecstasy of Influence. These manuscripts contained the same razor-sharp insight, breadth and restless curiosity, but here Lethem’s ecstasy was most often directed at writers and books. When Lethem and I met in person the following month, I suggested that we cull a book about books. Lethem liked the idea, and we were off and running.
Since many of these essays had already been published, my editorial work on this book often involved a sort of literary forensics: I looked for ways to meld the manuscript version, the published version and my own edits and suggestions. It was great fun — I loved finding other editors’ footprints, comparing their routes to Lethem’s, and suggesting a way forward.
I found answers here, too, to some of my most pressing questions about Lethem’s fiction. I’d always been in awe of Lethem’s stylistic range, for example, and his evolution from book to book. How is it possible, I wondered, that the same person could have written A Gambler’s Anatomy, As She Climbed Across the Table, and The Fortress of Solitude? How can one writer have so many gears?
But look at his readerly gears, and the ideas on craft embedded in these essays. I love what Lethem says about Lorrie Moore’s “continuing interest in how power imbalances make themselves felt in human encounters”; Kenneth Koch’s “apparent transparency — the gesture or impulse seemingly recorded naked for the page”; Vivian Gornick’s ability to give “every actor in turn eyes with which to see the narrator who has seen them, and voices to rival the narrator’s in acuity.” I shelved each of these amazements away — as I did this koan, contained within an anecdote about a craft talk by John Ashbery (in “A Mug’s Game,” Lethem’s essay about Gilbert Sorrentino):
Several students asked [Ashbery] in sequence to weigh in on the difficulty of “content” in poetry such as his. After ignoring the word the first instance or two, Ashbery suddenly wheeled on it, and delivered this apparent certainty: “Content is only the sides and bottom of a box.” He drew a box in the air with his hands. “Nothing more.” … Half an hour passed before another courageous student pressed at this lingering image, the “box” Ashbery had helpfully sketched. “Sir, if content is a box, may I ask what is inside?”
“I’m sorry?” said the disconcerted poet.
“What does the box hold?”
“Oh! Nothing at all,” Ashbery said. “It’s entirely empty.”
As this collection took shape, I found it impossible not to be affected by Lethem’s joyful approach to his craft, his reverence for other writers, his sense of gratitude for a life spent in books. Soon, I found myself “reading along” with these essays — tracking down new-to-me gems by Philip K. Dick, Chester Brown, and Christopher Ricks, and rereading favorite authors like Moore, Steven Millhauser, and Donald Barthelme. Now, if I’m stuck in my reading or I sense my vision narrowing, I look to Lethem for signs of where to go next. Just last weekend, I stopped by one of my favorite bookstores to see if they had any books by Koch (and my go-to, Richard Brautigan). They didn’t, but my inquiry led the bookseller to suggest a like-minded (in his view, at least) writer, Kenneth Patchen. The Journal of Albion Moonlight now sits on my bookshelf; another fresh trail awaits me.
Christopher Boucher is a professor of English at Boston College and the editor of Post Road magazine. He is the author of the novels Big Giant Floating Head, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, and Golden Delicious, and the editor of Jonathan Lethem’s More Alive and Less Lonely, all from Melville House.