Life during wartime: Chronic City book club, day 5

Rounding out the week’s posts on Lethem’s Chronic City is long-time friend-of-the-blog Sunny Stalter, an assistant professor in the English Department at Auburn University. Her research examines technology in American literature and culture. She’s currently writing a book about NYC subway literature. Follow her on Twitter: @slstalter.

In a 2004 review, Lev Grossman celebrates the current crop of novelists for whom “the tough, fibrous membrane that used to separate literary fiction from popular fiction is rupturing.” For Jonathan Lethem, that membrane has always been a porous one. As Martha Nadell pointed out on Wednesday, Lethem’s earlier novels have covered a wide range of genres, from the detective novel to the superhero story to the urban sketch. Today I’d like to point out some of the issues in Chronic City that come to the fore when we think about Jonathan Lethem as a writer of science fiction. His first four novels were sci fi tales with occasional tropes borrowed from the mystery story and the western. His indebtedness to Philip K. Dick is much-discussed, especially by Lethem himself (see his 2005 essay, “You Don’t Know Dick” in The Disappointment Artist); Chronic City inhabits a similar realm, with its stoner protagonists and conspiracy theories.

Lethem is not the only contemporary novelist working with the dystopian instrument of speculative fiction. Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad flashes forward to a technology-addled and authenticity-starved future Manhattan in the novel’s final chapter, and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story inhabits a similar space. Colson Whitehead, no stranger to genre-hopping, has a zombie novel called Zone One coming out this fall, in which protagonist Mark Spitz reconstructs and defends lower Manhattan. What is it about life in present-day New York that’s making all of these authors imagine its near-future?

Like all good genre fiction, Chronic City uses its sci fi tropes to actualize what it feels like to live in the present day and what might be possible in the future, bringing the inexpressible and uncanny parts of urban life to bear on the central characters. The giant, marauding tiger that moves below the city streets destroys critic Perkus Tooth’s favorite restaurant (possibly killing a waitress for whom he pines); the tiger’s action renders his apartment uninhabitable as well. Chase Insteadman attempts to visit Tooth and is turned away by the police. He finds out that

it was the weight of the snowfall and the erosion of the street salt on the century-old foundation accessible within the Jackson Hole crater [made by the tiger] that brought about the wider damage which made Perkus’s building, among the others, unsafe. The word infrastructure came to mind. The city was always on the brink, hardly needing an excavating tiger’s help to fail. (311)

Here, Chronic City uses the monstrous force of the tiger as a vehicle for articulating the anxiety about infrastructural decay and the root instability of apartment living. The city “hardly need[s]” the tiger, but as a supernatural force he does articulate the seemingly inhuman and unstoppable force of urban development, what Max Page has called the “creative destruction of Manhattan.” As we see with the heavy snowfall in the passage above, the weather becomes a malevolent force in Chronic City as well. I finished the book as Hurricane Irene raged, truly creeped out by Lethem’s descriptions of the thick fog covering downtown and the snow that continues through April.

Real estate plays a central role in the dystopian New York City of Egan’s and Shteyngart’s novels as well. (In Super Sad True Love Story, hipsters live on Staten Island!) More importantly perhaps, these novels share with Chronic City a deep suspicion of the new technologies that have changed city dwellers more deeply than even gentrification could. Lethem’s Guardian interview suggests that Chase is “almost like a character in a reality television show” and identifies a central concern of the novel as “how confusing it is to live in this muddle of virtual and real.”

Have the distractions of the smartphone changed or reduced the pleasures of city life? Egan’s novel concludes with Alex, a late arrival to New York, fretting about losing his credibility by advertising a concert through his social networks and paying his friends to do the same. Super Sad True Love Story finds people tethered to their apparats, personal communication devices that broadcast their net worth and rank their desirability relative to other people in the room. In his New York Times essay “Only Disconnect,” Shteyngart discusses how his view of the city changed once he bought an iPhone:

The first thing that happened was that New York fell away around me. It disappeared. Poof. The city I had tried to set to the page in three novels and counting, the hideously outmoded boulevardier aspect of noticing societal change in the gray asphalt prism of Manhattan’s eye, noticing how the clothes are draping the leg this season, how backsides are getting smaller above 59th Street and larger east of the Bowery, how the singsong of the city is turning slightly less Albanian on this corner and slightly more Fujianese on this one — all of it, finished. Now, an arrow threads its way up my colorful screen.

In Shteyngart’s view, the iPhone distracts the novelist’s attentive eye, and the physical details of clothing, body type, and accent fail to make an impression. But Lethem’s characters are technological anachronists, trying to win eBay auctions on dial-up modems and ignoring their cell phones when they even have them. Even though Chronic City writes about New York City in (and even as) a speculative fiction, these characters remind us that the future may already be here, as William Gibson is often quoted as saying, but that it is unevenly distributed even in a city like New York.

Although they offer a mode of critique, the dystopian elements of Chronic City provide a way of imagining community and authenticity as well. Our moderator has already introduced the issue of music in the novel, especially the importance of The Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” after Perkus Tooth flees to the Friendreth Canine Apartments. The “giddy nihilism” of the song seems to offer one possible affective response to seeing a New York City in disrepair (353). The more resonant reference to me was to that epitome of punk rock dystopianism, Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime,” name-checked in subtle ways in the book’s second half. That song, whose title could in fact be a subtitle for Chronic City, evokes both the fear and the bracing excitement, indeed the palpable life of the resistance in any war. After the Jackson Hole burger joint has collapsed, Chase and Perkus take their friends to another restaurant called Grace Mews. Chase feels the power in banding together after such an event:

I’d widened the circle of conspirators — mine, and Oona’s — to include Richard and Georgina. This felt natural, in a life-during-wartime sort of way.

Seeing the company assembled here for the first time — four of us with our burgers, and now came Oona’s too — I believed I was seeing my present life complete for what it was, or what I wished it to be. Like a foreign correspondent in a zone of peril, a Graham Greene protagonist, I was secretly thrilled that chaos had rearranged a few things. I had my people around me. (241)

Pushing back against the terror of the moment, Chase feels an increased sense of solidarity. There’s a “we” in the Talking Heads song — “we dress like students/we dress like housewives” — and a sense of community and incipient power. By the end of Chronic City, Chase has translated that community into agency. The transgressions of wheatpasting posters on city streets or fighting in the virtual world may be minor ones, but they give the participants a shared sense of purpose instead of the atomizing distraction that Lethem finds to be the most poisonous element of contemporary culture. Chase’s renunciation of taxis in favor of the shared anonymity of the subway is an everyday version of this gesture (465); his attempt, along with Biller, to liberate Claire Carter’s hidden cache of chaldrons so that they might be shared with the entirety of Yet Another World is the more heroic one.

So I’d like to end with some questions, in the hopes that we might open up discussion to include not only Chronic City but all of these contemporary visions of New York. What does it mean to imagine New York City from the perspective of a science fiction writer, even when you’re writing for a literary audience? Is this, as Fiona Anderson suggested yesterday, a traumatic response to recent history, one where New York writers cannot look at the present straight on? Is this interest in examining New York from the standpoint of genre fiction a response to Michael Chabon’s call for a return to the “thrilling tale” instead of the bland New Yorker-style epiphany? Or is it merely fiction writers figuring out what filmmakers like George Romero and John Carpenter already know, that telling a B-movie story is the easiest way to engage with the politics of the day? This is by no means a conclusive survey, so I’d love to hear about other novels treading the same paths and other connections that I may have missed. Most importantly, I’d love to other theories about why writers might be so interested in using this mode to explore the city right now.

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