A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

The full text of this interview is currently not available online.

[I]f every admirable result from setting a story in the future or from using images of the fantastic or extrapolative concepts isn’t science fiction — because it’s too good — then all that’s left to represent the label are the failed attempts to use those motifs. So of course the genre is contemptible.

Let Them Ask

Winner of the 2006 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Fiction. 

The full text of this story is currently not available online.

Amali felt the gaze of the other girls studying her as Chamila joined the class. It took all of her concentration to keep a fixed gaze on her notebook, on the neat script of the English letters making up her name. The ‘A’ came up to a determined point that she liked. In English, her name announced itself on the page with strength, like a ladder climbing skyward. In Sinhala, her name began in endless loops, constantly circling themselves, leading nowhere.

 

If You Could See Me Now

The full text of this essay is currently not available online.

One crystalline spring evening in London I heard from a woman who declared, “I have reason to believe you’re my biological father.” Speaking long distance from Los Angeles, she said she had been born there on December 24, 1964. As she told me the precise time of her birth, her weight and the color of her eyes and her hair, the conversation assumed the sort of sinking inevitability that attaches itself to events that you realize you’ve been waiting for, half in dread, half in hope, for decades.

A Sense of Place

The start of our twenty-ninth year is marked by the beginning of The Missouri Review as a quarterly and by the winners of the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. The winners in all of the genres—poetry, nonfiction and fiction—are all first-time publications. This hasn’t happened in sixteen years of the contest, which confirms what we have lately suspected—that, if anything, there’s an increasing amount of writing talent waiting to be discovered in this country today. Interestingly, two of the contest winners are writing from experiences that they had as Peace Corps volunteers.

 

In her essay “Obedience,” Erica Bleeg struggles to understand differences between cultural attitudes in Africa and America. Joanna Luloff’s story “Let Them Ask” is about not just Sri Lankan culture but also the cruelty and sincerity of childhood, as school girls turn against one of their own for not maintaining a feminine mask. Shimon Tanaka’s story “Favor” concerns the miracle and idiosyncrasies of a lifelong friendship, to some extent paralleling the oddity of existence itself—with its obligations and not wholly pleasant chance and circumstance.

In his memoir “If You Could See Me Now,” taken from an upcoming book of the same title, to be published in April by Unbridled Books, Michael Mewshaw tells the fascinating story of a complicated early love and of the woman’s choice to put up an illegitimate child (by another man) for adoption. In later life, the mother served in public roles, including that of a presidential adviser, and the daughter would seek out her parents.

This issue also includes James Schiff’s excellent interview with Jonathan Lethem, author of books including The Fortress of SolitudeGirl in Landscape, and Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Lethem reveals his lack of confidence as a young author, his commitment to learn how to write, as well as discussing his choice to work in an experimental style that bends and conflates fantasy, absurdist and pop writing.

“The Cosmic Uroboros” by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, taken from their upcoming book A View from the Center of the Universe (to be published by Riverhead Books) is about today’s cosmology, which they depict as surprisingly graspable and established. Primack is one of the scientists behind “Cold Dark Matter” theory, one of the central ideas in current observational and theoretical cosmology. Among the intriguing points the authors make is that while at times we may imagine ourselves to be specks in a too-vast-to-comprehend universe, humans are in fact fortunate winners in scale, being exactly the “right” size.

One of the major themes of this prize issue is winning not money or power but, more importantly, a sense of place and belonging. Understanding where one is, fitting in, finding roles, connecting with others and with the rest of nature—these are primordial themes not just in literature but in all of art.

# # #

Recently I was reading about the history of archaeological ideas concerning the earliest significant bodies of art, the portable and cave art of the Paleolithic Period. Early theorists portrayed such art as a way of thinking and feeling visually about the world and about nature, a kind of “doodling” about humans and their relationships to the rest of nature. Later theories became more complex, describing early human art as the possible tools of shamanism, initiation, religion and social organization. Interestingly, several recent archaeologists and anthropologists are effectively going back to a modified early view, saying that while we may surmise social or religious uses in some cases, there simply isn’t enough evidence to support meaningful conclusions.

For example, fifteen- to twenty-five-thousand-year-old Venus figurines have been found in widely dispersed places in Europe. Given their typically enlarged breasts and bellies, it is reasonable to speculate that they have something to do with fertility or reproduction. But disagreement about what the figurines represent, as well as contemporary awareness of the surprising variety in human behavior and ideas, makes today’s anthropologists wary about casually declaring that the Venus figurines are the tools of shamanism or fertility magic.

However, we can say with confidence that the art of the Magdalenian Period (16,000 to 10,000 B.C.), for example, is brimming with intriguing evidence of humans wondering about nature and their relationship with nature: portraits of animals, often in beautiful and graceful movement and intriguing symmetries, animals with “see-through” bodies in which their insides are revealed, animals and humans in hybrid forms, animals sometimes being hunted but more often not. This introspective approach emphasizes what is obvious about the art—that it represents the expanding capacity of humans to appreciate and speculate. In a sense, anthropologists are admitting that whatever its specific purposes may have been, early drawing, painting and sculpture is art, representing the human wonderment and large and inexact questioning that is at the nature of all artistic behavior.

Call it “doodling” or call it Paleolithic aestheticism, all of the arts—as these fine young writers show—are still very much about the same things: appreciation, awe, toned representations of who we are and what connects us.

—Speer Morgan

Poetry Feature: Derek Mong

Winner of the 2006 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Poetry

Featuring the poems:

  • Re: Vitruvian Man
  • Speculum
  • Recoil
  • To an Older Sibling, Miscarried

Obedience

Winner of the 2006 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Essay.

The full text of this essay is currently not available online.

He was gentle toward his mother and sisters. Toward girls we met in the neighborhood, his spirit shifted like waves on water, half-shy, half-friendly. That he could force a girl to do something she didn’t want to do appeared unlikely… At age eighteen, Roland had lived his entire life in a country where men and women were not born equal, socially or politically. He spoke with a vehemence he had not grown into. “I’m the man,” he insisted.

Poetry Feature: Sue Ellen Thompson

Featuring the poems:

  • Happiness
  • Only Child
  • My Parents’ Sex Life
  • What She Wanted
  • Babies
  • Hospital Days

Favor

The full text of this story is currently not available online.

Shuhei was stuck in the odd position of both protecting and despising his friend, or his neighbor, so that at school he would stand up between the moping Hideo and the bigger and rougher boys, who numbered as many as four and would half-encircle him, and when Shuhei intervened he had to withstand the shoves of four pairs of arms against his iron chest. Yet when it was only the two of them, Shuhei, despite himself, would occasionally find himself overcome with annoyance and would push the boy down. This will teach you! he would say as the boy fell to the ground.

What Size is the Universe?: The Cosmic Uroboros

The full text of this essay is currently not available online.

The size of a human being is at the center of all possible sizes in the universe. This amazing assertion challenges not only the centuries-old philosophical assumption that humans are insignificantly small compared to the vastness of the universe but also the logical assumption that there is no such thing as a central size. Both assumptions are false…

Poetry Feature: Marie J. Carvalho

Featuring the poems:

  • Giving Out
  • That Thing You Can Never Have
  • Coplas/Verses
  • Damage