Following up on my Jonathan Lethem post, I'm going to out-geek him here by noting that the cover he describes for an imaginary science fiction book (by "F. Fred Vundane") actually blurs two distinct eras of sf book illustration. The Miró/Tanguy-style cover mostly came out in the early '60s (below, left), a wildly experimental and exciting time (imagine: quirky abstraction on book covers!) but by the '70s, the period Lethem is describing, book jackets got much more blandly illustrational (right); the "computer style letters" he mentions, however, would more likely be seen in the latter decade. The "electric yellow," "Peter Max" influence did survive into the '70s (e.g., Brian Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head cover), but never with as much style as those early '60s editions. A nice picture essay on the Ballantine book covers, from which the blurry images below were taken, is at Strange Words, a regrettably-not-very-active sf e-zine.

Lethem also plays fast and loose with his Marvel Comics chronology, muddling Silver Age ('60s) stories and characters (eg, Silver Surfer, Black Bolt) with books produced almost a decade later (Luke Cage, Power Man). In 1974 he has kids looking at a book that wouldn't come out till 1976 (Dr Strange #12) and another that in '74 would be hopelessly vintage (The Incredible Hulk #115, 1969). OK, maybe the latter's not so implausible. Also borderline but still dubious is whether a kid would say "Use the Force, Luke" the "morning after the last afternoon of seventh grade" in 1977 when the movie opened in limited theatrical release May 27. (Star Wars opened in a few select theatres and word of mouth built over the summer; if Dylan had been part of the first-month vanguard for this generation-defining epic, you'd think Lethem would have at least mentioned it.) The discrepancies only irk because Lethem's so casual about forsaking the dweebs he claims to be one of--he doesn't have to get his facts right because these people don't matter any more; the readers and writers of Great Novels he wants to run with can be easily fooled with some comics lore tossed off for "authenticity."

My point here isn't to engage in literary class warfare but merely to express disappointment that Lethem has written an old-fashioned bildungsroman after a few forays towards a new kind of narrative, with one foot in popular trash and the other in post-humanity. For a writer grappling with the realities of the disassociated, multitasking electronic media age, the novel, Great American or otherwise, is a limited and convention-bound vehicle. Being obsessively true to pop culture without shucking literary skill could be a way to a different, more relevant verbal art, in the tradition of Burroughs, Kathy Acker, et al (and from there to performance video, games on CD-ROM, web-writing...) Hmmm. This may be circling back to the "Why is Wm. Gibson Writing and Not Blogging?" question. Theory in progress--more later. Also, I really need to finish Fortress before popping off again.

- tom moody 10-26-2003 2:01 am

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