Riddled through with the real: Chronic City book club, day 1

I had two main reasons to propose Chronic City as a summer book club selection: One, I’d read it before, but quickly, and had since then wanted an excuse to return to it. Two, I thought it somewhat felicitous that Lethem’s story, set in an alternate reality’s Manhattan, made reference to the two bands Cyrus and I spent a chunk of the last year writing about. Television gets a little less play than the Stones, but the band and its history on the downtown scene still serve as touchstones at key moments. The irascible Richard Abneg, former advocate for LES squatters’ rights and now a lackey for the novel’s Bloomberg-esque mayor, has Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” as his ringtone. An even more direct Television hit comes when we’re offered a glimpse into Perkus Tooth’s conspiratorial thought processes, the paranoid dot-connecting that justifies his very existence but possibly dooms him as well. His mode of thinking, as one of the novel’s narrators puts it, is a “whirlwind [of] intertextual eurekas,” yoking

Mailer’s The White Negro, Seymour Krim calling Lenny Bruce “the Jazz Circuit Hegel,” the expulsion of Richard Hell from Television, The Man Who Was Thursday, the aphorisms of Franz Marplot, Colin Wilson on Gurdjieff, Dennett’s theory of mind-as-computer, Borges’s “Doctor Brodie’s Report,” a Cassavetes appearance on The Gnuppet Show, all in a flurry, relying on shorthand[.] (385)

This isn’t the first eureka whirlwind we get from Perkus. But it’s exemplary, and of course I was tickled by the idea that Hell’s departure from Television might be part of a grand conspiracy Perkus aims to discern and expose, a plot to turn Manhattan into a simulacrum of itself. What authentic New York does Perkus yearn for? When Richard Abneg tells Chase about Perkus’s younger years, he describes an NYU dropout who had taken to pasting anarchist broadsides around the East Village, gaining “invisible overnight fame” in a city that was

still open to Beat or punk self-invention, that city Perkus had always chided me [Chase] for failing to know: Frank O’Hara and Joe Brainard, Mailer and Broyard and Krim, Jane Jacobs, Lenny Bruce, Warhol and Lou Reed, all of it, including Patti Smith and Richard Hell and Jim Carroll, poets declaring themselves rock stars before they even had songs, Jean-Michel Basquiat writing SAMO, Philippe Petit crossing that impossible distance of sky between the towers, now unseen for so many months behind the gray fog. (430)

If these catalogs help us understand the ideal Manhattan in Perkus Tooth’s mind, moments like this also point to a feature of this novel that maddens some readers but brings me some pleasure — and either way seems to characterize a typical experience of trying to tackle this book. The first time through it I wrote in the margin: “the novel in the age of Google,” meaning Lethem litters his text with names and titles that, if you’re anything like me, led (at least initially) to a lot of Googling, too much Wikipedia reading, and even some downloading and one-click Amazon purchasing of books or albums or films you’d never heard of. The novel extends itself into little wormholes in the Web. I enjoyed figuring out where Chronic City‘s world overlapped with ours.

Lethem’s detractors, though, find all this name dropping off-putting: it reduces Lethem’s writing to a “literature of fandom,” as the novelist Joshua Cohen put it:

Artworks that only namecheck other artworks are not necessarily artworks themselves. To write about other writing — or worse, about “Star Wars” and Dungeons & Dragons, as Junot Diaz has done, or about the downtown music and art and film scenes of three decades ago, as Lethem does — is not to write for, and of, one’s unmediated self.

Bracketing, for a moment, the question of whether or not an “unmediated self” might possibly exist, and ignoring the unwarranted swipe at Diaz’s wonderful Oscar Wao, I think Cohen misses an even larger point about Chronic City, which is its very self-conscious attempt to lead the reader through the same kind of epistemological experiences the characters represent. How many of the items on Perkus’s list did you already have in your intellectual arsenal? How many did you look up? From those searches, how many items did you add to a “to do” list? Which ones seemed most promising in terms of opening up Lethem’s novel — intertextual mirrors that help you more clearly discern Lethem’s project? (Or did you ignore the impulse to look up these names and dismiss them all as pseudo-intellectual pop culture cocktail party canons?)

Something else is going on here related to my experience reading this novel, which has to do with the final item in the first list I quoted above. Unlike everything that preceded it, which will check out if you spend enough time on Google, the inclusion of The Gnuppet Show clearly signals that Perkus’s world is not our own. Discussions of Gnuppets — obviously counterparts to our world’s Muppets — turn up from early on in the book. In an earlier rant, Perkus acknowledges The Gnuppet Show‘s genius, and he’s obsessed, too, with someone named Florian Ib, who directed The Gnuppet Movie. The shift from Muppets to Gnuppets allows Lethem to parlay our desire to be in the know — to get or at least to Google his hipster knowledge — our desire for fact, that is, into a freer fictional realm that still speaks to the same readerly wish-list. It may even be more fun — once we’ve figured out that Florian Ib is a stand-in for Frank Oz, and the spy movie Footholds, mentioned in the novel, a thinly veiled version of Oz’s The Score — to find out if the other parts of the anecdote Perkus tells Chase early on have any counterpart in the real world. Turns out they do. Stories about Brando walking around the set nude from the waist down in order to force Oz’s shot to remain from the shoulders up circulated from The Score‘s shoots, as did accounts of Brando calling Oz “Miss Piggy” and declaring: “I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want.” (Oz disputes most of these tales.) What doesn’t line up with our world, though, is the novel’s additional Gnuppet-related roles for Brando, especially an appearance in Ib’s The Gnuppet Movie. (Brando didn’t appear in The Muppet Movie, which in any case was directed by Henson; Oz would later direct The Muppets Take Manhattan.) And as far as I can tell, John Cassavetes never made an appearance on The Muppet Show, either. It’s a little easier to realize that the Twin Towers aren’t just absent because they’re fogbound.

Where does all this fact-checking leave us in relation to understanding the novel? I said at the outset that at least initially it served as the grounds for much of my pleasure reading this book (I stopped Googling as many things as I went on), but I also suggested that the impulse to fact-check offers windows onto the novel’s conceptual project, which addresses the way we come to knowledge and its relevance — or irrelevance — to the kinds of social capital Lethem parodies in his scenes of uppercrust Manhattan dinner parties and benefit galas. Perkus doesn’t just collect arcane knowledge, he tries to make sense of the world through it, which leads him, among other things, to think that Brando is sending secret messages via his dispute with Ib: “We’re All Gnuppets, Brando was saying: abolish this boundary, tear down the wall or the curtain, and let’s have a look at the Gnuppeteers.” Meanwhile, hacks and sell-outs have easy access to the virtual Holy Grails Perkus most desires. If this is a novel written in and for the Google age, it seems to be nostalgic for an older information economy, one represented by the figure of the paranoid critic-collector, hunkered away in a rent-controlled apartment, surrounded by a library of half-read books and stacks of bootleg VHS dubs of obscure films, weaving theories of existence from such cultural arcana.

Lethem has acknowledged as much, describing Perkus as an affectionate commemoration of his sometime mentor, the critic Paul Nelson, and the kind of compulsive sensibility Nelson represented, rendered somewhat obsolete by the Web. From a Salon interview:

To look at [Perkus] very generously he’s very dedicated to the idea of secret knowledge, to the mastery of secret knowledge. And the Internet and the reissue age is one that is very humbling to masters of secret knowledge — everyone’s a master of secret knowledge now.

You know, when I met Paul Nelson, this can be very hard I think for someone younger than me to understand anymore — if you get curious about Howard Hawks, if you hear someone saying “Oh, god, you don’t know what you’re missing,” you can go and see “Red River” tomorrow. You can see 30 Howard Hawks movies tomorrow. When Paul Nelson said to me, “You need to know about this,” what he then did was pull out of his apartment, which was an archive, these VHS tapes with his hand-lettered labels on them all recorded off PBS or “The Million Dollar Movie,” commercials intact, with him fixing the vertical hold in the middle of the big scene — all recorded for posterity — that was how this meaning was transmitted to me. It was something rarefied and almost impossible to explore. He wanted me to see obscure Orson Welles movies — “F for Fake” or “Mr. Arkadin.” There’s no Criterion Collection, there’s no way to get from here to there unless Paul Nelson was up that night recording it with his television. But that’s all gone. We’re drowning in archival culture.

Are we richer or poorer for that?

I think it’s OK. I’d rather have it around.

Have everything available rather than relying on these kind of guides …

Yeah, I guess in a way there is that sense in which Perkus Tooth is a commemorative character. I had to make these guys naive about the Internet — you know, the joke about them not even knowing how to bid on eBay, and still having a dial-up computer — because a lot of the meaning that is so precious and so fragile for them evaporates in the instantaneity of Internet communication.

Here’s, then, what the book seems to be about, for me at least. It’s about desires to belong to inner circles defined by secret knowledge — the desires of a rube arriving in the metropolis — but it’s also about the dangers that kind of obsession and exclusivity can pose, particularly if you place too much confidence in the stories you collect. It’s no surprise to me that Perkus’s authentic New York is so deeply rooted in the 1960s and especially the 70s, the same period Lethem revels in so sentimentally in Fortress of Solitude, which readers are practically invited to identify with Lethem’s own Brooklyn childhood. The publisher’s discussion guide for Chronic City may be making a similar appeal to Lethem’s biography as a way to help readers “get” this book: “Have you ever felt that the place where you lived or grew up was being turned into a ‘simulacrum’ of itself?” Are we being asked, here, to empathize with Perkus or with Lethem? Certainly Lethem’s discussions of Nelson as a model for Perkus lead us down the same expectation that part of the novel’s authority will reside in its autobiographical dimensions. What strikes me as ironic about this line of questioning is that the novel leaves us with the warning that all reality may be virtual, in some sense (see esp. 266-67). At the very least — poor Joshua Cohen notwithstanding — it will be mediated. How much is our Manhattan like the one Perkus describes: “a replica of itself, a fragile simulacrum, full of gaps and glitches. A theme park, really! Meant to halt time’s encroachments” (389). Or is Perkus’s indictment of Manhattan simply a placeholder for a larger human predicament, as Chase seems to imply near the novel’s close:

The world was ersatz and actual, forged and faked, by ourselves and unseen others. Daring to attempt to absolutely sort fake from real was a folly that would call down tigers or hiccups to cure us of our recklessness. The effort was doomed, for it too much pointed past the intimate boundaries of our necessary fictions, the West Side Highway of the self, to shattering encounters with the wider real: bears on floes, the indifference and silence of the climate or of outer space. So retreat. Live in a Manhattan of your devising, a bricolage of the right bagel and the right whitefish, even if from rival shops. Walk the dog, dance with her to Some Girls. (449, my emphasis)

So, readers — where to turn from here? Are there relationships between “our necessary fictions” (449), “the city’s fiction” (337), and the novel’s self-referential awareness of its own fictional status that are worth pointing out? Is this self-referentiality what requires the novel’s turn toward magical realism and/or science fiction? Are there other points where teasing fact from fiction led you down productive interpretive paths? And if the defining characteristics of my reading experience felt foreign to you, where did or didn’t you find a foothold in the text?

Over the next few days I’ll have a string of guests join me to help us keep things rolling, but we hope you will help us kick off this discussion. Take it away!

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