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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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Today we’re pleased to welcome Fiona Anderson, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at King’s College London, as a guest contributor to our summer book club discussion of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. Fiona’s dissertation deals with space and sexuality in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, with special attention to the work of David Wojnarowicz. Follow her on Twitter: @fiona_rachel.

As Lethem’s Chronic City draws to a close, Chase Insteadman attempts to come to terms with the unexpected passing of his friend Perkus Tooth. Claire Carter, an associate of the novel’s Bloomberg-esque Mayor Arnheim, who “debunked” the holograms of Yet Another World, is “astounded at [the] naiveté” of Chase’s concern that Perkus may have been ‘right,’ that “Manhattan had become a fake. A simulation of itself” (525; page numbers refer to British edition). “How could a place like Manhattan exist for just one purpose, instead of a million?” Carter replies, as Chase begins to conceive of a “simulation riddled through with the real”:

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. (527)

Like the multiple Manhattans that make up the landscape and subject of Chronic City, mention of the West Side Highway evokes two city structures simultaneously, both known by official (or municipally applied) and non-official titles: the city’s waterfront-adjacent West Side expressway, also known as the Joe DiMaggio Highway, and the disappeared Miller Highway, the now-demolished West Side Elevated Highway, known more informally as ‘Death Avenue.’ In an ironic turn that would not seem out of place in Lethem’s novel, the dump truck that served as the catalyst for the Highway’s final collapse in December 1973 was carrying asphalt to be used in the roadway’s ongoing repairs. The removal of the collapsed structure was not completed until 1989. The defunct road seemed to remain to serve as a reminder of the city’s own decay: functionless, inaccessible to the majority of the city’s public. It closed Manhattan off from its perimeter and with a possible confrontation with its edges, its “unhemmed” quality, as a 1987 New York Times article put it. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Highway was both present and invisible, strangely obstinate, like the fictitious novel Obstinate Dust, which passes between Perkus, Biller and Chase throughout Chronic City.

What does the image of a “West Side Highway of the self” tell us about Chronic City’s fixation with might we might call Manhattan’s architectural memory, of a building or a landscape’s mnemonic properties? Do these properties persist after its buildings decay or are demolished? “New York,” wrote Henry James, “is nothing more than a provisional city,” an always temporary construction. How does Lethem’s semi-fictitious landscape engage with James’s condemnation of Manhattan’s relentless modernity? Memory is, of course, a central tenet of the novel on a more abstract level. Chase, remembered publicly for childhood achievements, cannot remember the fiancé who exists, it seems, only in ‘outer’ space, where landmarks like planets are distinct, but few and far between, paralleling Chase’s own battle with spatial mnemonics in a declining Manhattan, or, indeed, numerous declining Manhattans, each eaten away at, decaying like Janice’s cancerous foot.

In the passage that Bryan explored on Day 2, Chase is moved by the vision of a local church’s “actuality” from his apartment window: “buildings do persist, Manhattan does exist. […] When I look, however, language dies” (147). In Chronic City, Laird (/Layered) Noteless’s gaping holes step in where language seems to fail or “dies.” Noteless is a latter-day proponent of the ideals of the land artist Robert Smithson, as Oona’s research for her autobiography of the famed artist tells us: “I practically memorized The Writings of Robert Smithson, for god’s sake,” she cries. The ‘non-site,’ Smithson wrote in his ‘Provisional Theory of the Non-Site’ in 1967, is “a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site,” and stands in contrast to an architectural drawing which is a “two-dimensional analogy.”

Between the two sites, Smithson argues, resides “physical metaphorical material devoid of natural meanings and realistic assumptions. […] Let us say that one goes on a fictitious trip if one decides to go to the site of the Non-Site.” Smithson’s ‘non-site’ is, like the chaldrons, “real and fake, as Marlon Brando was dead and alive” (396). Might Lethem’s novel suggest Manhattan itself, or at least Perkus’s vision of it, as a kind of Smithsonian ‘non-site’? The gap in Noteless’s ‘Urban Fjord’ is, however, literal. In a city where skyscrapers assume a monumental quality, his works go down, digging into Manhattan’s subterranean spaces, the domain of the subway, the kingdom of the gentrifying tiger, which, for Chase, is also a space of trauma. “The New York subway,” he declares to the reader, “is a vast disordered mind, obsessing in ruts carved by trauma a century earlier.”

Noteless’s works name presence and encourage spatial memory in a city where streets and avenues are distinguished by numbers. His next project, the ‘Memorial to Daylight,’ marked the enveloping of the Financial District in a “grey fog.” The absence of the numerical mnemonic ‘9/11’ from Lethem’s novel leads the reader not to imagine a Manhattan without this trauma, this disappearance, but to read its presence in each unfamiliar space in Lethem’s unreal New York, producing a confrontation with how we acknowledge trauma and host memories in a city that seems to exist by rewriting itself.

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Literary Brooklyn

Ugh! Coming off my return from vacation I somehow managed to miss the launch party last night for Evan Hughes’s Literary Brooklyn. I’d been so looking forward to it, and am really looking forward to digging into the book.

If you also missed the party, you still have plenty of ways to catch up (in addition to dropping by your local bookstore on the way home from work and grabbing a copy for yourself). Hughes was on WNYC today (just a few hours before I was!) talking to Brian Lehrer. He did a great Q&A a few days ago with Mark Athitakis. There’s a review in yesterday’s Times. (Thanks to reader Lauren Ross for sending that link our way.) And on the 26th, Hughes will be leading a walking tour and conversation out of Greenlight Bookstore. That sounds like something not to be missed.

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It’s not too late to pick up or re-read a copy of Chronic City for our first ever PWHNY summer book club. We’ll run some extended posts and host discussion a couple weeks from now.

In the meantime, here’s another link to a piece I found useful the first time I read the novel. It’s a WSJ piece by Alexandra Alter about the novel’s Upper East Side setting — and the idea of Lethem as a “Brooklyn” writer taking on Manhattan. Enjoy.

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For those about to book club …

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Perkus Tooth

For me, one of the pleasures of reading Chronic City is something that probably drives other people batty: trying to figure out which characters, plot points, settings, and passing details have a real-world referent. I’ll have more to say, I’m sure, about how this aspect of the novel has affected my reading experience, but for now I just want to throw out a couple links for those wondering about the key character Perkus Tooth.

As Lethem acknowledged in interviews around the time of the novel’s 2009 release, Perkus has a principal prototype in the legendary critic Paul Nelson. Our friend John Mark over at Continuum called our attention to a couple titles related to Nelson: Everything Is an Afterthought, an “anthology-biography” edited by Kevin Avery and due out from Fantagraphics this fall, and Conversations with Clint, a collection of Nelson’s interviews with Eastwood, also out in October and also edited by Avery. Lethem writes the forward to the latter.

In addition to Lethem’s comments on Nelson at the first link above, readers wading into Chronic City might be interested in this collection of memorials assembled after Nelson’s 2006 death. Lethem’s represented there as well.

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Tuesday, March 22, 5pm: A lecture celebrating the publication of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City, by Carla Peterson, Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. Co-sponsored by the Departments of English, History, and Social and Cultural Analysis, the Program in Archives and Public History, and the Humanities Initiative


Location: 20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor. Open to the public.


From the publisher: Part detective tale, part social and cultural narrative, Black Gotham is Carla Peterson’s riveting account of her quest to reconstruct the lives of her nineteenth-century ancestors. As she shares their stories and those of their friends, neighbors, and business associates, she illuminates the greater history of African-American elites in New York City.

Black Gotham challenges many of the accepted “truths” about African-American history, including the assumption that the phrase “nineteenth-century black Americans” means enslaved people, that “New York state before the Civil War” refers to a place of freedom, and that a black elite did not exist until the twentieth century. Beginning her story in the 1820s, Peterson focuses on the pupils of the Mulberry Street School, the graduates of which went on to become eminent African-American leaders. She traces their political activities as well as their many achievements in trade, business, and the professions against the backdrop of the expansion of scientific racism, the trauma of the Civil War draft riots, and the rise of Jim Crow.

Told in a vivid, fast-paced style, Black Gotham is an important account of the rarely acknowledged achievements of nineteenth-century African Americans and brings to the forefront a vital yet forgotten part of American history and culture.

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Apologies for the slow posting lately: Cyrus is on the road this week, at the Modern Language Association among other destinations, and I’m up to my neck in an initial screening of over 550 applications to our Ph.D. program. So much for winter “break.”

I’ve been mulling over a list of my favorite NYC-related books of the last year and realized many of them shared something in common: they sit on my nightstand or in my office unfinished! This isn’t the fault of any of them — it’s a sad byproduct of reading so much for my day job. As usual, I’m trying to read too many things at once. And I’m sure I’ll eventually get through them — some of them in the next few weeks before classes start.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

It’s driving me nuts that I don’t have more time just to buckle down and finish this: there’s good reason it’s on so many year-end lists. I’m a little over half way though. Its episodic structure, relying on multiple narrators, lends itself to slow-going, though: I can finish off one narrator and then wait a few weeks before taking up the next one. You’re probably familiar with the basics: McCann uses Philippe Petit’s famous tightwire walk between the WTC towers as a unifying device in his portrait of a cross-section of New Yorkers. His genius, much like that of the documentary Man on Wire, is pulling off a post-9/11 work that’s set in 1974: this is, we’re to understand, one version — or many versions — of the world that made us. Previously. And.

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife by Chad Heap.

Heap, who teaches American Studies at The George Washington University, writes beautifully — without sacrificing historical argument and interpretation — about the forces that shaped, and the consequences that flowed from, a turn-of-the-century craze among upper classes to visit LES low-life, bohemian, Harlem, and gay/lesbian underworlds in New York and Chicago. How did slumming organize social space a century ago? How did it help to produce divisions of race, class, and sexuality that remain in place today? Give me a couple weeks and maybe I’ll have some better answers. Previously.

Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Scene, 1973-1992 by Tim Lawrence.

I haven’t yet got out of the 70s in this one, but damn — what a loving portrait, and rich with biographical detail and cultural insight alike. I’ve sung undying praises for Russell before, but if you’re a fan of popular music and you’ve somehow made it to this point in the century without having purchased this album or seen this film, shame on you! Once you’ve taken those in, you’ll be heading to the bookshop to pick up Lawrence’s bio. Russell has been and will certainly be a key to the rewriting of the downtown scene’s history — one that takes in all its multiple incarnations, from underground disco to minimalism to NY art punk.  Previously.

Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James and Karla Murray.

Okay, I can let myself off the hook a bit with this one: it’s a coffee table book! I shouldn’t be expected to have been through it start to finish. A birthday gift from a good friend, I’ve had it next to the sofa all fall and have been rewarded — if saddened — every time I open it randomly and take in a few pages. Some of the storefronts the Murrays photographed are old-friends who’ve since vanished. Bravo to them for preserving this slice of New York life that may not last much longer.

Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York by Donna Dennis.

I may actually finish this one in the next two days. This legal history of 19c print underworlds begins with the story of Fanny Hill‘s suprisingly long shelf-life (or behind-the-counter life?) before moving to an account of the recently recovered and increasingly studied “flash press” — a series of irreverent weeklies designed for young, “sporting male” readers curious about celebrity prostitutes — and the libel trials they occasioned in the 1840s. Other print matter, including “fancy” books and sexual advice manuals, also occasioned prosecution and could be even racier. The climax — perhaps an anti-climax? — arrives in the 1870s with Comstock’s postal policing. What Dennis offers that most print histories don’t is a careful legal and partisan-political contextualization: now the literary historians need to catch up!

Plenty of other books I never even had the time to start, including Doctorow’s Homer and Langley and Lethem’s Chronic City. With luck, in 2010! Anything out there you wish you’d been able to finish — or start? WOtBA had a nice year-end round-up of NYC books if you’re looking for other ideas.


*[Enter holiday of your choice.]

tugboats.jpgI  received a flier in my mailbox today alerting me to NYU Press’s 30% holiday discount for several outstanding titles in New York history — any one of which would make an appropriate gift (for me or someone else you love). Matteson’s illustrated history of the NY tugboat looks extremely compelling. I’ve picked it up more than once while browsing local bookstores.

For more NY-centric gift reads at discount prices, see the Press’s complete list of related titles here.

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