Brooklyn

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Today’s discussion of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City comes from guest blogger Martha Nadell, who teaches at Brooklyn College and is at work on a literary history of Brooklyn. She is also the author of the chapter “Writing Brooklyn” in our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York.

In the past decade or so, Jonathan Lethem, more than any other novelist of recent years, has come to be considered Brooklyn’s quintessential writer. He is the go-to Brooklyn writer, a familiar presence at the Brooklyn Book Fair, at Brooklyn bookstores, classrooms, and other venues. Lethem, by virtue of two of his novels’ settings and subject matters as well as his own personal history (he grew up in Brooklyn in what is now known as Boerum Hill), has come to stand for Brooklyn’s most recent literary renaissance.

When, in 2010, Lethem accepted the Roy Edward Disney Professorship in Creative Writing at Pomona College, the Brooklyn Paper indicted the “bard of Boerum Hill” on charges of abandoning Brooklyn, while the New York Post reported that one fan tweeted “Hard to imagine Lethemless Brooklyn” and accused him of pulling a Walter O’Malley Think about that for a second. Lethem was so closely aligned with Brooklyn that he was charged with replicating what some see as the greatest betrayal Brooklyn experienced in the twentieth century, O’Malley’s uprooting of the Dodgers to Los Angeles. Lethem, in uprooting himself, was cast simultaneously as the nefarious owner and the team itself.

Lethem’s fictional move to the Upper East Side in Chronic City did not occasion such a strong reaction, but it did cause some local handwringing. The Brooklyn Paper was quite relieved that the novel was a satire, rather than a tribute of that “god-forsaken borough.” And even his publisher got in on the act. According to an article in the Guardian, Lethem’s publisher took out an ad for the novel proclaiming, “Lethem does Manhattan.”

While Lethem may have left the borough for California, Chronic City, however, is not a radical shift away from Brooklyn to the foreign land of the Upper East Side. Indeed, Lethem himself has stated that “It’s deeply grounded in a Brooklynite’s view of Manhattan.” But what does that mean? Is Lethem writing from an outsider’s perspective in Chronic City, fashioning Chase Insteadman (who hails from Indiana) or any of the other characters as aspirational social climbers intent on piercing the Upper East Side’s closed and easily satirized wealthy society? That’s not what’s at stake in the novel, clearly, despite Lethem’s comments. Rather, Lethem is transposing the obsessive concentration on small nodes of Southern Brooklyn evident in Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude to a new locale. Bryan’s Day 1 comments are helpful here. If Chronic City is the “novel in the age of Google,” then Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude are novels in the age of Google-maps. Rather than encourage us to follow in the epistemological journeys of Chronic City’s characters through the catalogues that preoccupy so much of the book, Lethem’s Brooklyn novels encourage us to follow the epistemological journeys of their characters though their movements through those places that, by virtue of the local and idiosyncratic meaning concentrated in them, don’t appear on what James Agee calls “official maps.”

Both Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude take as their subjects the peculiarities and nuances of the local, as well as the manner in which these places figure language and identity for their characters. Motherless Brooklyn is a soft-boiled detective novel, which follows the Tourette-suffering, orphaned Lionel Essrog, car service driver cum detective, over the course of a four-day investigation into the death of Frank Minna, his boss and father figure. This investigation provides the novel with the occasion for pages and pages of flashbacks that reflect on the centrality of Brooklyn’s streets, well Cobble Hill’s streets, and mores and on the coming-of-age in language of this young orphan. The novel both maps and makes meanings and structures, for its characters, out of its cartography:

And Court Street, where it passed through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, was the only Brooklyn, really – north was Brooklyn Heights, secretly a part of Manhattan, south was the harbor, and the rest, everything east of the Gowanus Canal (the only body of water in the world, Minna would crack each and every time we drove over it, that was 90 percent guns), apart from small outposts of civilization in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, was an unspeakable barbarian tumult.

Lethem writes: “But it was Minna who brought me language, Minna and Court Street that let me speak.” And again: “Like Court Street, I seethed behind the scenes with language and conspiracies, inversions of logic, sudden jerks and jabs of insult.” The novel makes meaning visible in space — the streets, stores, and brownstones — out of what often remains invisible to outsiders.

Likewise, The Fortress of Solitude is a coming-of-age novel that is predicated on the protagonist’s interaction with Brooklyn’s streets, or at least primarily with one Brooklyn Street — Dean Street in what was Gowanus and has come to be known as Boerum Hill. In this tale of gentrification, race, and desire, Lethem’s cartography is on the smallest of scales, beginning when Dylan is young the “arrangement of zones in slate” that is Dean Street and getting progressively larger. Consider this:

Nevins and Bond Streets, which bracket the block at either end, were vents into the unknown, routes to the housing projects down on Wyckoff Street. Anyway, the Puerto Rican men in front of the bodega on Nevins owned the corner. Another group, black men mostly, lingered in the doorway of a rooming houses between the Ebduses’ and Isabel Vendle’s, and they would shoo way the ball-playing boys, yelling at them to watch out for the windshield of a car forever parked in front of the rooming house, a Stingray, which one Puerto Rican man with a waxed mustache frequently polished and rarely drove. Finally, a mean black man who glared but never spoke broomed the slate and scissored weeds in front of two houses close to Bond Street. So the children of Dean Street instinctively bunched in the middle of the block.

Both Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude encourage us to walk with an eye to the local and the idiosyncratic. And some react with very specific questions about the relation between Lethem’s Brooklyn and our own: Does Zeod’s (the fictionalized Ziad’s) really make such good sandwiches? Is that Isabel Vendle’s (the fictionalized Helen Buckler’s) house? The novels focus our attention on not on large-scale landmarks of New York but on the particulars that preoccupy everyday lives.

And so does Chronic City. The WSJ map and guidebook of the Upper East Side is evidence of this impulse. As Bryan writes, we want to know where our world and the world of Chronic City overlap. But there is more than that desire that connects Chronic City and Lethem’s Brooklyn novels. As in Lethem’s earlier works, Chronic City links its characters and readers experiences of space with their transformations. Chase Insteadman’s meanderings from his apartment to Perkus Tooth’s apartment to Jackson Hole points to the problem of opacity and visibility that preoccupy the novel:

To live in Manhattan is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interleave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes that pavement-demolishing workmen periodically wrench open to the daylight and to our passing, disturbed glances. We only pretend to live on something as orderly as a grid. Waiting for Perkus Tooth’s buzzer to sound and finding my way inside, I felt my interior map expand to allow for the reality of this place, the corridor floors lumpy checkerboard mosaic, the cloying citrus of the superintendent’s disinfectant oil, the bank of dented brass mailboxes, and the keening of a dog from behind an upstairs door, alerted to the buzzer and my scuffling boot heels. I have trouble believing anything exists until I know it bodily.

The novel distrusts and resists the legibility of the city implied by the grid, like Speed Levitch, and uncovers for its readers a different kind of legibility.

Likewise, when Perkus begins to walk the dog flaneur Ava, his experience of space too transforms his “interior map”:

Yet far more important than any human map, Perkus learned to which patches of snow-scraped earth Ava craved return, a neighborhood circuit of invisible importances not so different, he decided, from his old paces uptown, the magazine stand where he preferred to snag the times, or East Side Bagel, or the crater formerly known as Jackson Hole . . . If Ava could thrive with one forelimb gone, the seam of its removal neatly erased in her elastic hide, he could negotiate minus one apartment, as well as with the phantom limbs of conspiracy and epiphany and ellipsis that had always pulled him in so many directions at once.

As in Lethem’s Brooklyn novels, Chronic City points to the contingent and conditional nature of our own “interior maps,” maps that emerge from encounters with and in space. Chronic City deploys the Upper East Side in the same way that Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude deploy Red Hook, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, and Boerum Hill. The intricacy of the spaces and the meaning with which they emerge as places, subject to and determined by interpretation are, in Motherless Brooklyn, “wheels within wheels,” and, in Chronic City, worlds within worlds.

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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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Thanks!

We had a great time at our launch party last night at 285 Kent. Many thanks again to the bands who performed — Vacation, Widowspeak, and Real Estate — and to Jenn Pelly/Pellytwins for help presenting the lineup & for promoting. Thanks to Todd P for the venue. Thanks also to our publicist, Claire Heitlinger, and to David and John Mark at Continuum. Finally, thanks to the 250+ bodies who filled that steamy room for a night of summery rock and roll. It was a great way to kick off the titles: we hope to meet more readers/fans of the albums at future events.

Photo (of Cyrus flogging one of the books) courtesy Derick Melander.

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Thumbnail image for television.jpgThumbnail image for somegirls78.jpg

Sometime soon we’ll make a return to regular NYC lit and culture blogging. This week we’re still caught up in launching our 33 1/3 volumes on Some Girls and Marquee Moon.

Tuesday morning we’ll be live on This is the Modern World with Trouble, which runs from 9 am to noon on WFMU. Our conversation with Trouble will happen sometime around 10:30 and last for a half hour or 45 minutes.

Tuesday evening we’ll be reading at Word bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Here’s their Facebook RSVP for the event.

Then, on Thursday evening, we’re pleased to have a launch party at 285 Kent in Williamsburg, presented by Pellytwins. The lineup:

|| Real Estate
|||| Widowspeak
|||||| Vacation

Details:

| 285 KENT AVE |
285 Kent Ave @ South 1st | Williamsburg, Brooklyn
L-Bedford, G-Metropolitan, JM-Marcy | 6/30 | 8pm | $10 | all ages

Facebook RSVP for Thurday’s show.

Although we’ve had our head in 1970s NYC for the last year or so, we’ve been really keen on launching the books with a live music event that celebrates the sounds of our own moment. We hope these give you an idea why we’re so excited about these particular acts:

Be there.

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Our Friday afternoon playlist comes from Jenn Pelly, a Brooklyn-based music writer and recent NYU grad in English and journalism. Her music writing, often about the current BK DIY scene, has appeared on Altered Zones, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere and she maintains the weblog Pelly Twins with her sister Liz, who writes about music for the Boston Phoenix. Jenn is a WNYU alum (though she’ll host the New Afternoon Show through this summer) and is also a veteran of #wny11 and the first run of my Downtown Scenes course last summer. Follow her on Twitter @jennpelly.

NYC mixtape

This mixtape is half all-time favorites and half contemporary locals, which to me totally exude “New York.” I left off many of my actual favorites for the sake of avoiding the obvious and out-of-place, but these songs are all steeped in my memories of bumming around the East Village in high school and floating around today’s Brooklyn DIY scene. Download the entire thing right here, or stream Side B below.

A –
1. Eric B. and Rakim – I Know You Got Soul
2. Blondie – Fan Mail
3. Bob Dylan – Talkin’ New York
4. Arthur Russell – That’s Us/Wild Combination
5. Sonic Youth – Bubblegum
6. Swans – God Damn the Sun (Live at WNYU 1987)
7. Richard Hell & the Voidoids – Blank Generation
8. Suicide – Rocket USA
9. Shangri-Las – Leader of the Pack
10. Jeff Buckley – Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin [

B –
1. La Big Vic – FAO
2. Widowspeak – Harsh Realm
3. Crystal Stilts – Crystal Stilts
4. The Babies – Meet me in the City
5. Holy Ghost! – Wait and See
6. Woods – September with Pete
7. Black Dice – Glazin’
8. Vivian Girls – Damaged
9. Coasting – Coasting
10. Juliana Barwick – Choose

jp’s pwhny guest playlist – side b by jennpelly

Side A kicks off with one of my favorite tracks from Eric B. and Rakim, who, like me, were transplanted from Long Island to E. 4th and Broadway. I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard the smooth, golden beats and scratches of Paid In Full: the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts near Lincoln Center, reading about the album in a dusty, faded SPIN back issue. I’d been living in the city for just a year, and “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at” was exactly what I needed to hear as I dealt with my morphing New York identity. Another highlight here is a live recording of Swans playing “God Damn the Sun” live on WNYU, July 1987—in the last ten seconds, catch Gira thanking Hilly Kristal for “doing what he’s done for us at CBGB’s.”

01 Swans on WNYU 07 20 1987 by jennpelly

I tried to avoid the obvious, but I couldn’t help including a few. Blondie, Richard Hell, and especially Jeff Buckley are, for me, the musical equivalent of that part of Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” where she talks about what New York was like for her “before she knew the names of all the bridges,” when everything was still exotic and unfamiliar. They remind me of my romanticized 15-year-old notions of the city.

What I love most about this playlist is how traces of Side A can be found all over Side B; when I took Bryan’s “Downtown Scenes” class last summer, I couldn’t help consistently drawing parallels to New York’s underground music culture today. If you’re into music, nothing’s more enthralling than your own times. At least when you’re 21 in a place like New York.

Starting up Side B is “FAO” from retrofuturistic Brooklyn band LA BIG VIC, which includes New York native Emilie Friedlander on vox/violin, guitarist Toshio Masuda of Osaka, and synthesist Peter Pearson. Emilie is editor of two music websites, Altered Zones and Visitation Rites; Toshio previously performed in a major label J-Pop boy band; and Peter is an apprentice to Pink Floyd’s former live sound producer, Jeff Blenkinsopp. They’re the type of band that could have only formed in New York.

Also of note here is “September with Pete” from Woods, whose place at the center of the Woodsist label makes them poster-children for my generation’s NY music culture. (Not to mention that, at the drummer’s recording studio, Rear House, sessions “usually start with a conversation about the first Ramones record.”) I love the sense of community that seems to circle Woodsist, the cultural importance of which I first felt in ’09 at the inaugural Woodsist/Captured Tracks festival. “September with Pete” also features Pete Nolan of Woodsist band Spectre Folk.

Repping the Captured Tracks camp here is the young band Widowspeak, whose debut “Harsh Realm” 7” is like a more magnetic Mazzy Star. Where indie rock and pop is concerned, Side B has also got The Babies, Vivian Girls, and Coasting. Coasting is Madison Farmer (of Dream Diary) and New Zealand-transplant Fiona Campbell (drummer for Vivian Girls), who met while working at DIY shows in Brooklyn.

On the slicker side of the spectrum is Holy Ghost!, a disco-inspired duo of Manhattan natives who take more than a few cues from New York scenes of the 70s and early 80s. Their debut LP was released this year on James Murphy’s label, DFA — who also released early LPs from the experimental electronic group Black Dice. I like to think of my life’s milestones in terms of live music events, and seeing Black Dice (who grace Side B with 2009’s “Glazin”) at Bushwick venue Market Hotel in 2008 certainly makes the cut. I was 18 and living on the Upper West Side, and it was my first time at Market Hotel; I had no idea where I was, and the kids at the shows were all so hip, they looked like aliens to me.

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One of our students snapped this photo in class today while Cyrus was lecturing on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. With our building not fully converted to cooling yet, it certainly felt like the hottest day of the year. And that’s the double truth, Ruth.

If you want to get a flavor of Cyrus’s take on the film — which both draws on the history of racial politics in the making of modern Brooklyn and thinks about the breakdown of civility in American public discourse — you can scroll through the #wny11-tagged Tweets from our Twitter feed. Over time we’ve written about the film here on the blog. Cyrus gathered many useful links around the time of the film’s 20th anniversary, in 2009. Earlier that year he blogged a few of his thoughts about the civility question and wrote briefly about the thought experiment he routinely conducts by asking our students to compare the openings of this film and Allen’s Manhattan. We’d love for you to leave your thoughts about the film in the comments section here. Is Do the Right Thing still relevant to NYC, more than two decades on? And what are we to make of this image, posted to Twitter by another of our students?

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Because I sometimes only get out of my neighborhood when I’m online. Sad, I know.

Calling out the Times for not knowing much about Marble Hill, where Manhattan and the Bronx meet by land. [Boogie Downer]

The Times should have talked to Michael Miscione, Manhattan’s borough historian. See his comments on this old City Room piece by Jennifer 8. Lee, which gets the borough border history right.

New Yorkers who want to protest the censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s video at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. will march along museum mile on Sunday, December 19. [Art +]

What did we lose to gain the Bayonne Bridge? [Ape Shall Not Kill Ape]

We loved this profile of Newtown Pentacle’s Mitch Waxman: “Tour Guide of the Toxic.” [Baruch College Dollars & Sense]

A rare Coney Island victory: Shore Theater landmarked. [Amusing the Zillion]

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File under: Things I probably won’t see/do in person, given they’re outside my little downtown bubble, and also given the fact that my next two December Saturdays, per long-standing Smith-Waterman family tradition, will be spent in the back room of DBA for their annual East Village neighborhood fair of homemade holiday gifts. But if that’s not your scene, try one of these:

A guide to holiday markets in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. [Markets of New York]

A five-borough guide to holiday lights and shows [CBS]

Another guide, specifically geared toward Astoria. [We Heart Astoria]

Sunday: Bronx Messiah and Taste of the Bronx Food Show. [Bronx Mama]

Saturday and Sunday: Harlem for the Holidays. [Uptown Flavor]

Also Saturday and Sunday: Staten Island Society of Model Railroaders sponsors its annual holiday train show and toy giveaway. [SI Live]

Queens holiday lights photo by Alex Goodwind from the CBS post linked above.

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A century-old faded ad for Bloomie’s, Lexington btwn 115th and 116th [What about the Plastic Animals]

Have you explored the South Bronx Cultural Corridor? [Bronx Arts]

Inauguración de LUIS MARQUEZ EN EL MUNDO DEL MAÑANA: LA IDENTIDAD MEXICANA Y LA FERIA MUDIAL DE 1939-40, Domingo 14 de noviembre, de 15:00 a 18:00, with a special offer for the Museum’s twitter followers. [Queens Museum]

Brooklyn Historical Society workshop: “Research Your House,” Saturday from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. [Brooklyn Heights Blog]

Great Kills Park Nature Walk on Sunday [Staten Island Museum]

Timely pre-walk reading and welcome news: After a year’s hiatus, the Staten Island blog Walking Is Transportation is back … with some thoughts about honoring solitude.

“Harlem Fall”: photo by Yojimbot at Harlem Hybrid.

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The least we can do in these times of lean posting:

Just how cold is the axe hanging over Coney Island? [Amusing the Zillion]

Plus: Reminder about the Ruby’s petition and the Nov. 6 rally!

Tottenville: The Town the Oyster Built [Tottenville Historical Society]

Woman discovers WWII explosive in Bronx home [NY1]

Take your kids — or hell, just yourself! — to the four boroughs you don’t live in. [ToNY, h/t Bronx Mama]

NY Art Book Fair at PS1 this weekend [The Q Note]

Houdini House on 113th St. Did you know Halloween was the 86th anniversary of his death? [What about the Plastic Animals?]

Photo credit: Me, for once. The view from my little bro’s new digs in Bushwick, a rooftop the size of a football field.

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