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.