Jonathan Lethem
Photograph by Rosdiana Ciaravolo / Getty

Your story “The Afterlife” opens as a group of passengers are riding a bus to the afterlife. When did that image first come to mind?

I’m forced to admit that ninety per cent of this story came to me in a dream, in January this year. It was a semi-lucid dream, one in which I experience a kind of meta-commentary layer in which I thought about how much the elements might comprise a short story if I woke up and wrote them down.

I’ve had that luck, if it is luck, just three or four other times. One of those times, however, I associate with the start of my writing life: an elaborate dream I had one night when I was sixteen. That became a short story called “Breakfast with Horse and Witch,” which I sent to The New Yorker. It was rejected. Seven or eight years later, still thinking about it, I incorporated elements from that dream into a novella called “The Happy Man,” which was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. It was also a kind of afterlife story, but far more flamboyant than this one—it included talking horses, witches, robots, etc. I guess I’m dreaming in a “late style” now.

The main character, R., is a sculptor, a man whose “signature” consists of a green-gray oatmeal surface applied over angled abstract forms. He believes it is possible to see sculpture everywhere, if the eye only knows how to look, yet here he can’t pick out anything. Why did you want to make him a sculptor?

R.’s work is the major element that wasn’t dreamed. One of my best friends out here in Claremont is the sculptor Charles Long, and I live with a number of his sculptures in my house. They’re not green-gray oatmeal forms, but there’s some oblique relation. I needed a way into the dream materials, and the “R.” character became my entry point. It strikes me now that the sculptural method R. describes—identifying a portion of a prosaic object, and isolating that portion to make it both unrecognizable and non-functional—is a version of what the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization” (in Russian, “ostranenie”), which I might flatter myself is this story’s method as well.

R. finds himself milling around in a crowd of other milling people. Initially, it seems a little like a party where every person there appears familiar but turns out to be a stranger. R. hears fragments of conversations (“a perfectly good empty apartment in Bed-Stuy”) as he moves. How did you come up with those fragments and why did you want that initial impression of the almost familiar?

So much of the human language around us, if we’re paying attention, is fragmentary, and received at a semi-voluntary level. Conversations that began before we entered the room, stray signifiers, advertising, graffiti, the overheard. If there’s language after we’re dead, maybe it will be the same kind of thing.

As for my sources, I’ll just say that the Internet is really handy. It seems to be defamiliarizing common language every time I glance at it.

Someone asks about “Avengers: Endgame.” R. doesn’t care about this sequel, until he feels that he should, even as it recedes ever further from its starting point. Why was this the movie you chose and how significant is that sense of slippage?

R. is distinctly conscious of feeling that he’s failed basic tests of common cultural participation, and he experiences this as a form of guilt, long after it might not matter, when larger concerns should overtake him. The summer spectacular, the box-office champion that everyone seems to care about, except him—it serves as an emblem of that feeling. As you get older, a lot of FOMO transforms slowly into COMO (certainty of missing out).

As the afterlife gets more crowded, the search for space becomes more imperative. Yet the appearance of an emptier spot can be deceptive. What do you imagine the reader’s response will be at this point, in comparison to R.’s?

My guess is that—precisely as your question implies—the story will at that point be inducing the reader to try to chart the distance between themselves and R. To wake up, in other words.

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