“The Starlet Apartments”
by Jonathan Lethem
from the March 4, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

While Jonathan Lethem is not new to these pages and certainly not to the literary world, I myself have still read only a little of his work, primarily whatever has appeared in The New Yorker (you can see the list of posts here). I haven’t loved what I’ve read, and I’m not sure this is going to change my opinion, though I’m always hopeful . . . I hope.

From the interview with Cressida Leyshon (here), it appears that “The Starlet Apartments” is an independent short story (not an excerpt), but it appears to be a kind of exercise. Lethem is working on a novel involving one of the central characters, but the novel is quite a different scenario.

Further, this is another story that looks to explore the #MeToo movement (even if Lethem says he didn’t have it in mind when writing). I’m curious how it will go. Lethem’s latest novel, The Feral Detective, came out last fall, and I don’t remember it getting good reviews.

So, do we have any Lethem fans here? How did you like this story? I’m curious. I hope it’s good but look forward to the discussion regardless!

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By |2019-02-26T13:37:34-04:00February 25th, 2019|Categories: Jonathan Lethem, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |9 Comments


  1. Reader February 26, 2019 at 7:04 pm

    This is the first #MeToo story I’ve read written by a male, and, while the critique of male (in this case, familial) complicity in abuse is noble enough, the piece didn’t work for me. For one thing, the story is predictable, so much so that I more or less guessed where it was heading and how it would arrive there from the moment the narrator’s sister is introduced to his sleazeball friend. But my real issue is with the pretentious and bluster-packed language used. It made for an regular-eye-rolling reading experience. I get how one might argue that that’s the point–the writing is intentionally overdone to the point of ostentatiousness as a way of reflecting the glib, hollow nature of Peter Todbaum and the world his character represents. Okay, maybe. Assuming that’s the intention, I still found it more gimmicky than meta, as once the thick shellac of cheap witticisms is scrubbed from the prose, the story itself–the plot, the characters, the subtext–proved somewhat thin. Ultimately, I’d say, righteous topic, unconvincing depiction.

  2. Reader February 26, 2019 at 7:06 pm

    *an eye-rolling reading experience*

  3. David February 28, 2019 at 8:50 am

    I felt like this really was more of a writing exercise with a character Lethem intends to use later than a proper story. So much of this feels incomplete. Starting with, and most importantly, I don’t really have any idea what happened to Maddy. She just met this guy, and it seems that he drugged, kidnapped, and raped her, yet when asked about what happened all she offers is cryptic replies like:

    Sandy: “Why didn’t you just walk out of the room? He didn’t restrain you, did he?”
    Maddy: “Not in any way you wouldn’t recognize.”


    Sandy: “You weren’t his captive? He didn’t stop you from leaving?”
    Maddy: “He did stop me, but not how you think.”
    Sandy: “How?”
    Maddy: “With words.”

    Ok. So he didn’t drug, kidnap, and rape her? So what the hell is she talking about? With words? In a day he was able to, what? Charm her into agreeing to disappear with him and then turned into a creep, but at the same time only persuaded her to stay without restraining her, yet she needed to ultimately be rescued through a massive operation that required the assistance of many women assuring her it was safe to come out? None of this makes any sense. It also seems to serve no purpose beyond the sensational. That is, unless this is just a sketch to practice writing about the characters. Either way, it’s not much of a story.

  4. Sean H February 28, 2019 at 8:15 pm

    Lethem paints an instantly recognizable world. The east-to-west literary move and all its concomitant sullyings is a well-documented one, and you could argue that this is well-mown territory, but the humor-darkness blend is specific and the characters a strong swirling of real and fake. The mood is that weirdly liminal not-quite-genre literary space than Lethem loves to traffic in. The sister’s arrival is necessary to triangulate the two leads and I think most authors would’ve waited longer to bring her in, trying to fully “immerse” the reader in the males’ LA lifestyle, but Lethem knows the reader can fill that all in from their pop culture repositories, so he can cut to the chaseroo with Maddy.

    Despite what certain judgmental wonks on the internet might say in the PC rushes, male spaces and female spaces are different. Her arrival would absolutely jar and infuse (as would a handsome brother’s appearance in the lives of two young women going at it in their Hollywood world). And yes, a person’s physical comportment does mean a lot. I might even go so far as to say it shapes us more than race or gender or class – simply how good-looking a person is. Starlets and hunks exist IRL. And sometimes they’re our siblings, who we knew before they lost their innocence and became subject to the judgments of appearance-land.

    This might also be the first literary story to truly coin the idea of the “remora male,” set in a world where the term “emo” hadn’t been mainstreamed yet, a world where your mainstream LA film choices were lowbrow De Palma or highbrow Clint (though back in NY the intelligentsia were at the Angelika watching Husbands & Wives or Bad Lieutenant).

    “Maybe you can have a thing you like, but have it in the wrong way” is a very interesting riff on the flaws in the simplistic and increasingly silly/vindictive #MeToo movement, notably the idea that memory is incredibly biased, unreliable, and subjective. What to one person was assault or harassment to another was flirtation or desired contact. Sometimes even the person claiming victim status (both people, usually) knows they’re manipulating the past in order to influence the present.

    Maddy’s line to Sandy about Peter “He didn’t do anything to me that he doesn’t do to you” showed a lot of wisdom and granted the female character equal footing and autonomy with the male characters, a truly feminist move by Lethem.

    I don’t know if the ending needed the skycap or the word “transacted” or the “Then she was gone.” For me, it would’ve been better had it ended with “my hands not quite meeting around the fullness of the pack.” Still, a smart story all around, deft and non-didactic.

    Oh, and Todbaum means “dead tree.” I don’t know if that’s too on-the-nose (it’s not quite a picture of a penis with a line slashing through it, but it’s close) or just accurate for a world dead set on smiting white male phallocrats (with the collateral damage of infantilizing women and minorities).

  5. Ken March 2, 2019 at 5:10 pm

    This story was a great example of the change of mind I can have after reading this site and it’s contributors. I was pretty impressed with this after putting it down because I think that Lethem, who I will agree can be a bit grandiose, is a very skilled writer who knows how to tell a story and compel the reader to keep turning pages. I”m also a fan. I think his novel “The Fortress of Solitude” is a masterpiece and I also really like “Motherless Brooklyn.” He writes novels that are clever, emotionally involving, and page turning and I think this story does that too. The central mystery here is nicely structured into the overall design of the piece. And then…I read this site. And…I must agree that David does point out some flaws in the logic here and that a character like Todbaum is a stereotype of a budding Weinstein or Toback. But…the grace with which Lethem writes the last passage where the character semi-hugs his sister while noting her backpack’s contents and thinking about the ‘skycap’ is pretty virtuosic and that is what kept me reading this straight through, semi-breathless.

  6. mehbe March 5, 2019 at 8:22 am

    The way I read it, the Dead Tree name alluded to paper. And that meant the paper on which the story I was reading was printed, with the words that manipulated me as I read, just as the Tod character manipulated people with his words.

  7. Larry Bone March 9, 2019 at 11:04 pm

    I think Reader is right. This story is filled with overblown prose as though streaming out of a hair dryer; as though the writer is afraid nothing he writes will stick or hold the reader’s attention unless it is overpretentiously written.

    And David points out how the author withholds key information about what happened because whatever he says cannot really make whatever really happened make any sense. The idea that any sane person would let themselves be abused by pretentious abusive language for 2 days? Todbaum has no power at all except for a mesmerising mouth from which Alex, the main character, and he made no money and he was no studio head at the time of the sisterly abuse incident. I really got disgusted with this story when the writer wrote, “Oh, sister. Oh, reader. When is the moment to admit that this story has no good ending? That my unknowns remained forever unknowns, that I carry on trying to describe something I don’t understand?” Well whose problem is that? For the writer to seem intelligent and yet people his story with such pathetic rat’s ass characters who don’t have a snowflake’s chance of surviving in Hell. I want to say “You are the writer. You are supposed to tell us the answers to the unknowns otherwise why waste our time with flimsy coverup dialog that doesn’t explain anything? The only good achievement of this short story is its relentlessly dark, cynical, antagonistic tone like many of the films coming out of Hollywood. This story is like the film, “Midnight Cowboy,” filled with the gloom, doom and wounded pride of entitled unfortunates. People others call trash. In terms of the MeToo movement, it is total denial. The sister is such a cipher totally oblivious to the trashiness of her train wreck brother that what sane person would ever trust? The writer seems a bit manipulative like Nabokov of Lolita. He writes in a very mannered post graduate uber cognoscenti-ish professorial sort of way. Maybe one has to be from a vaguely privileged upbringing to be able to observe life like that. But it is an achievement as a realy jaded as in tired, bored and totally lacking in enthusiasm kind of short story. The best thing I can say about this is that it updates the acerbic tone of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” screenplay Wilder co-wrote with Charles Brackett.

    The New Yorker has always been a little fascinated by jaded Hollywood as this short story shows. And writers like this one have apparently established a paying readership for themselves.

  8. Larry Bone March 17, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    I probably perceived Lethem’s story more negatively then it should have been out of disappointment with a good opening that seemed to have been thrown away. A writer has full rights to go with his or her story in any direction they feel most comfortable with.

    If this were an exercise, (?) usually a good exercise will show some sort of achievement which one could argue this one does through its tone and the simple yet effective way it opens. There are infinite possibilities after such a good opening. Granted there is not much time to establish three characters in much depth but this seemed to me like a serious instance of acute character underdevelopment. As though the author had spent some time on it but settled for much less than the story could have been.

    If characters seem bland and dull because their motivations and reactions to what goes on are unseen or passed over in a general way there is no impact on the writer’s mind that any much occurred in the writing. Nothing sticks in the reader’s mind to distinguish this story from any other excepting how where it occurred is described.

    Using a triangle of characters can structure the forward movement of the story but if nothing is made of how they relate to each or what they are thinking or no background or motivation for what they say, why they ignore each other the whole thing lacks motion. And the thrre characters seem cartoonish or severely lacking in something or don”t seem very real. It’s as though we are told a character has some sort of ability but otherwise seems dumb and uncomprehending. Its like 3 people in a sailboat sails up in a light breeze with sails flapping a little, the 3 characters bored and indifferent, haphazardly resigned to whatever will happen next as the craft drifts back slowly otherwise dead in the water.

    Maybe it is an exercise as though it is a writing assignment that didn’t go very well. And maybe it is techically a good example of a flawed short story that the graduate student writer didn’t quite think enough about. But that makes for a bad reader’s experience and editors or editorial assistants at publishing houses or magazines probably immediately throw stories like this in the reject slush pile. Or maybe the writer either just wanted to complete the assignment or get it published and move on something he had a little more interest in.

    It’s difficult not to feel more or less short changed by stories like this.

  9. Mitzi March 22, 2019 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks, all, for helping me understand a story that’s barely worth understanding. Considering the number of short stories said to be submitted to The New Yorker each week, I wonder why the editors chose this graceless one.

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