When Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, he had to be taken seriously. The novel, essentially a pulp fiction mystery with narrator Lionel Essrog acting as the detective while suffering from Tourette's Syndrome, established Lethem's credentials a writer with an intriguing pop-culture awareness. Then, 2003's Fortress of Solitude solidified his reputation with a narrative dense with pop references down to the title, which comes from the name for Superman's retreat from the world.
"I came from a painter's household and I had this hierarchy and thought real artists invented everything," he says. "In my early books, if your characters went to a movie, you had to invent a fictional one for them to go to; if you mentioned something real, you'd go to fiction jail." Motherless Brooklyn changed this for Lethem as Essrog compulsively anatomizes his world. In a magazine stand, he notices, "there weren't more than one or two customers for GQ or Wired or Brooklyn Bridge per month around here. Then I spotted a familiar face, on a magazine called Vibe: The Artist Formerly Known as Prince."
"I had this unexpected breakthrough in Motherless Brooklyn," Lethem says, "because Lionel and the exact nature of his temperament and his personality -- he was so scrupulously interested in everyday things. He liked to touch everything, look at everything and talk about it."
The revelation was sufficiently liberating that it made Fortress of Solitude possible. The book tells the story of a boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, which makes main character Dylan Ebdus a witness to the birth of rap, hip-hop culture, and punk. Details from that period dot the pages, so names like The Six Million Dollar Man, Mott the Hoople and Artforum are dropped, if not commented on.
"I'm a collector and a fan and a connoisseur and I love stuff, and I love thinking about it and I love favoring the specifics of the material of my world," he says. "I realized I could write a book about characters who felt that way, and to do so, I would want to let myself reference everything and not be afraid that I was breaking the fiction law."
His use of pop references is valuable because it blurs the distinction between the readers and the characters' worlds; readers could buy the Clash's Give 'Em Enough Rope or see Bingo Long and His Travelling All-Stars just as Dylan did. Erasing that boundary is useful because, for all the novel's naturalistic elements, its central feature is a ring that gives its wearer super powers.
The reality of life in Brooklyn at that time was fairly easy for Lethem to recreate because Dylan's Brooklyn is the one Lethem grew up in. He admits that part of writing about Brooklyn in his last two novels is part of coming to grips with the place he came from, but Fortress of Solitude isn't purely autobiographical.
"Spiritually, it's an autobiographical book," he says. "The affection for this place and that time in the world, Brooklyn in the '70s, and the milieu of the characters -- the school that Dylan [Ebdus] and Mingus [Rude] move through, the culture they're immersed in, comic books and the music and the movies they sneak into -- that's hugely autobiographical and gives the book a passionately autobiographical tone. But it's deceptive because the characters are not one-to-one in any regard."
Writing about pop culture has made Lethem a lightning rod for fans of the things he writes about, something he has mixed feelings about. "There is a subset of the people who read the book who you might call my constituency, who are guys more or less my age" -- late 30s, early 40s -- "who, whether it's the music or the comic books or some element of the milieu, suddenly someone is talking about their life or their world that they haven't encountered before. I like that and am proud of it because I love that feeling myself."
At the same time, he concludes, "By the time I've written an essay like the one in [Sean Howe's anthology Give My Regards to the Atomsmashers], I've had my say. I don't have a whole lot more to say about Jack Kirby, so if people get a hold of me they're kind of disappointed. The energy's in them now."