The PFG Book Club: ‘They Live’ by Jonathan Lethem

I Feel There's a Street Art Campaign in Here...

There will be a point in here, I promise.

I can count on one hand the scattered tin fragments left over from my literary criticism classes still scratching around in my brain pan, and the strongest of those is Wolfgang Iser’s idea of the repertoire. I’ll refrain from boring you or courting the wrath of all my postgrad friends and readers, but briefly and overly simply: Iser was a reader-response critic who thought readers brought a ‘repertoire’ to a given work, both their own experiences and their cultural knowledge.

I’ve always had a sort of attachment to Iser’s idea, given how frequently something will strike some forgotten chord on the busted piano of my memory, connecting two unrelated cultural artifacts together.  I acknowledge this is not what Iser was talking about.

What fascinates me is what stupid little pieces of cultural debris my memory chooses to latch on to.  Case in point.

About two months ago I flipped the channel to an airing of John Carpenter’s intentionally bad 1988 cult film They Live. I had not thought of or considered the movie in at least fifteen years, yet I was able to recount the plot for my Lady, buliding her anticipation for that fight in the alley [you know the one].  For the next hour, the insane rantings of Roddy Piper accompanied an afternoon of house cleaning.

I have forgotten almost everything I knew of literary theory, but damn if the plot of They Live won’t be with me forever.  I am unclear to what we should attribute this to. What held that specific text in my mind, at the ready, should it ever need deployment when reacting to another?

Normally I’m not the sort to try to string literary theories to bad sci-fi movies.  Thankfully PFG Hero Jonathan Lethem has no such qualms, as he turns his scholar’s eye toward the film for the first of Soft Skull Press’s Deep Focus Series [think the 33 1/3  Guides for movies]. The book is a swift read at 208 pages; chapters are rarely more than five pages in length.  Lethem didn’t conduct any original research for the book, instead engaging in what series editor Christopher Sorrentino describes in one of the book’s epigraphs:

“It’s one of  those peculiarly impoverishing gifts that popular post-modernism has bestowed on textual [so to speak] analysis — scatter clues on the surface…like so much flotsam and you, the reader/viewer/listener get to say “Hey! I think there might have been a shipwreck here! If only all those Coast Guard cutters and Air-Sea Rescue helicopters would get out of here so I could study these signs more closely!

Lethem busts out a bizarre array of tools to skim the surface clues, everything from the work of Shepard Fairey to the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, moving through the movie scene by scene, from the locations chosen, to the troubling misogyny that runs through the film and yes, even that infamous fight scene.

It’s probably the weirdest book I’ve read in recent memory, and maybe speaks to too narrow a demographic [Scifi fans and Lethem completists], but it was still a welcome text to dip into while riding the train to work. I once said that Lethem fixates on those know-it-all burnout types who go on at length about esoteric topics.  ‘They Live’ proves Lethem is one of those characters, albeit one far more charming and tolerable than any of his fictional creations.


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