Monday, December 31, 2007

Jonathan Lethem: The King of Sentences

There are stories that strike me as fluff on a first read. Nothing about them that would compel me to take a second look; and then, a day or so later--when stories I thought far better have vanished from memory, I find the one I'd so lightly dismissed is still there, nagging at me like The Little Drummer Boy a week after Christmas. Passages or incidents come back to me, pop into my head while standing on a corner waiting for the light to change. Jonathan Lethem's "The King of Sentences," was like that. (December 17, '07 New Yorker). HERE

The Little Drummer Boy reminds me that the Persistence of Memory is not always a sign of great merit, but it's something I do expect from the best writing, and even in the case of the Drummer Boy, it's a phenomenon that demands to be accounted for. What is it about this story--or about my neural circuitry--that keeps the tune going long after the music stops?

The narrator and his co-dependent sexual partner, Clea, both aspiring writers and clerks in a book store, are positively giddy about sentences: "good" sentences. They throw their own best efforts back and forth in lieu of conversation. Write them on the walls of the loft they share, print them out and cut them into strips to scatter through the city in hopes someone as appreciative of the craft of sentence writing as themselves will find and read them. They use them to goad one another to orgasm--and more than anything, they long to meet their hero, the "King of Sentences," the author of books of questionable character (this is true, it turns out, of the King himself), but no matter. It's only the sentences that count. "Sentences are content!" Clea exclaims to the cop, who wonders if they ever bothered themselves with the content of the King's books. No, to bask in the presence of their creator is a dream they cannot deny themselves.

What is going on here, and who is this King of Sentences? Wordsmith's Books tells us that Lethem "pin-points himself and the whole current literati crop of Chabonphiles and Eggersites on the head with this one. The Jewish Literary Review would have us see "an older Nathan Zuckerman in the King."

I'm not so sure. The way they call him The King in the last third of the story, and the final paragraph, where they understand, "abruptly and at last, just what it takes to be King. How much, in the end, it actually costs," brought to mind, incongruously, to be sure, the only popular figure I know of who, in the popular media is consistently called "The King ."

I'm more impressed by the relentlessly hypomanic, evanescent, monomaniacal idiocy of the two characters, their unblinking willingness to abase themselves in the presence of this sleazy author. This is what both troubles and fascinates me. You understand as you read, and this is more than a little disturbing, given the dubious character of their hero, that there is nothing they won't do to win his blessing--a premonition that comes close to realization in the final scene.

I couldn't help but think of those early letters of Raymond Carver to Gorden Lish--in the next week's issue of The New Yorker.


  1. Jacob,

    Being of non-American upbringing, I can't support or disprove your hypothesis regarding The King. But, I have a comment for you regarding that feeling you shared, "What is it about this story--or about my neural circuitry--that keeps the tune going long after the music stops?" (sic).

    There is a sort of sustained metaphor that rings throughout the story, which is perhaps the ringing left in your intellectual ear, shall I say. About sentences v/s meaning, superficiality v/s 'what it takes'. Even the cop alludes to it... when he asks the groupie couple, if they've cared to read more of the King's works.

    In the end, their clothes are shredded, and all we have left is that realization summed up in the very last sentence. What more did they discover, other than have their clothes shredded? Well, the protagonists were never in it for anything profound. The story plays recursively on itself; brings you back.

    Hope this helps you resolve the persistent ringing... for it is indeed there.



  2. Thank you for reminding me of this story--and of my review. I have a stack of New Yorkers I've not had time (or inclination)to read--at least, not the fiction. Maybe I should start pulling them out working on the backlog.

    As for what resonated for me, thinking about it a year later--it was indeed, the cost, not only of being "King," but to those who dedicate themselves to propping him up on his thrown.

  3. What about the sentence "Google, for what it was worth, favored a famous painter of wildlife scenes-- beaver dams, heron hideways-- with the same name."

  4. I'm not sure what you're asking? If you Googled the "King of Sentences" by his name, you would get more hits for this painter of wild life of the same name (Audubon?)

    What about it?

  5. I don't think the Google comment is really concerning anyone in particular. It seems plain to me that Lethem is manipulating the reader into wondering about all of the mysteries he provides and is constantly drawing the attention away from what he is REALLY thinking/writing about. Perhaps there is a specified writer, but even if one could be clever enough to figure it out, it is immaterial to the story.
    Lethem is writing about young people, perhaps young authors, that become obsessed with a writer or writers that influence them; whose work resonates/speaks to something inside of them. The function of the Google comment is merely making a societal statement about the current mainstream view of literature in America. He makes other statements of this nature concerning the Administration, referring to, I think, G W Bush.
    The overall point, I would say, is about the power of the author when he uses sentences. If the sentences can penetrate the mind in a certain way, they elicit all kinds of things from the reader. He does that with his story and the fact that it doesn't come together at the end with a dawning of finite information, I think, encourages the idea that the facts of the story, the point of the people, the King, etc don't matter. It is the fact that he manipulated you with those sentences that matters; that you (the reader) felt what he planned on you feeling.

    Does this ring with anyone?

  6. Mitchel,
    thanks for your thoughts here... not ready to dig deeper, but the word 'betrayal' keeps coming to mind. Self betrayal... as the 'cost' of public aspiration for any artist. Again, the crossover to public figure, the King (Elvis)... thoughts I've been working through... as in my Post of Nov.11

  7. I'm looking forward to hearing Lethem at the Philadelphia Free Library tonight... I will not ask him who the 'King' is...

  8. hmmmmm... probably a good thing not to ask. I feel like Lethem would frown on it...not knowing him, however, I could be completely wrong.

    I am interested to hear what Lethem has to say also. I hope you'll blog about it. I am in Indy and have to work the graveyard tonight so I won't be making it to Philly haha. Do you know if they record the session and if there is anyway to get hold of it?

    I feel hesitant about the King being Elvis and want to say (as I do to my English Prof) Don't you think that might be diving too deep? And the only reason I ask is if we do discover that the King is Elvis- how does it change the story or the meaning? I feel like if the person were meant to be discovered or play a part other than what part he plays, there would be more informaion. And so I suppose that if that were the case- that he intends the reader to discover the King then it is a bad story because the information is not there.

    I most definitely do not think this is a bad story. I think it's rather brilliant. It is a play on the natural conclusions of the mind. I do agree with you that self betrayal is prevalent in the line you quoted above and I interpret it as just another statement that he wants to throw out into the world: GW Bush, the stakes of an artist, the modern, western world consumed by media/electronics.

    All very interesting. I'm writing a paper on this short story right now. I really appreciate you responding and posting initially. If you don't mind, I will use this blog (your words) as a reference- properly cited no less!

  9. You're welcome to use anything you find here.

    Out the door, but quick comment on the 'King'
    It's not that the King 'is' Elvis... but that Elvis as "king" is an inescapable part of popular culture, so it's going to be a common association for readers, in that sense, it's embedded in the text as at least one important way of reading it. I find the assoication strong because it works so well as a pivit for much of the rest of the story--the implicit parody of celebrity--or of the cross-over of writer/artists AS celebrities.
    Good luck with your paper! I'll try to write something about Lethem's reading.

  10. Mitchel,
    Busy--no time for blog. Heard Lethem read from his new novel--quirky, back-and-forth associational way of talking... not unlike how he writes. You will never be misled looking for pop culture references in his fiction--if it sounds like Elvis, probably Elvis...but that matters far less than WHY he uses these as tropes. What is it ABOUT Elvis, writers & celebrity (and loss of same) and the obsession for ranking (who's best, who's Number One?)

    Not much I could say about the reading that would be of help to you (except, read Lydia Davis (she was the other writer on the program)--she's freaking AWESOME!).

    Good luck on your paper. Sorry not to have gotten this up sooner.