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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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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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I’ll keep things shorter today, in hopes that someone might dare to get a word in.

Two moments early on in the novel were game changers for me — points at which I became less sure I knew what kind of book I was reading. One came in chapter 5, when I realized that suddenly I’d been let inside Perkus’s head, was listening to him think. In narratological terms, Lethem uses free indirect discourse to give us access to Perkus’s voice when he’s not speaking aloud. What seems jarring about this formal choice is that up to this point we’d been experiencing Chase as a first-person narrator, limited in his perspective. So how do you take this shift? Does the novel have multiple narrators, or is Chase somehow taking on the role, in moments like this, of a third-person omniscient narrator? If so, why?

The other moment came a little later, in chapter 7, when Chase gives us a beautiful, brief monologue on the view from his window. It begins this way:

I find I want to get this description right, or at least a little righter. With the possible exception of my own face in the bathroom mirror, the church spire outside my window is the sole thing I look at deliberately, consciously, every single day. Yet I glance in its direction as if in doubt, as though the spire’s memory is only a rumor between me and myself, and one of the two of us doesn’t completely trust the other. When my eyes do confirm the church’s actuality (buildings do persist, Manhattan does exist, things are relentlessly what they seem even if they serve as hosts, as homes, for other phenomena), the sight acts on my mind like an eraser rubbing away the words that might describe it, into crumbs easily swept from the page. If I’m elsewhere, I have an easy name for the thing: a church spire, a few blocks away, and, sporadically, a flock of wheeling birds. When I look, however, language dies. (124)

The paragraph that follows is, on the one hand, quite tentative about the ability of language to convey what he sees from that window. And yet this chapter is often cited as — and the view from the window serves as a recurring reminder of — Lethem’s lyricism, the vitality of his prose style. He foregrounds and even showcases clarity and descriptive power here, in spite of Chase’s insecurities about words. “Manhattan does exist”: that phrase in the middle of the paragraph anticipates and seems to refute the discussion of virtual realities that will come to dominate the novel’s closing sections. It also seems to resist the view Perkus had put forward in one of his internal rants back in chapter 5: “for who hasn’t found themselves enlisted in this city’s reigning fictions from time to time?” (74).

The issues here are the same ones I asked about yesterday: What are the relationships between personal fictions, the city’s fictions, and prose fiction (the novel as a genre, the New York novel)? What do any of these things have to do with the novel’s satirical take on virtual reality?

Let me know what you think.

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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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Book club countdown

I’m working today to finalize a schedule for our summer book club discussion of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. We’ll most likely commence at the start of next week. (I think I said that last week, but I really mean it this time.)

Meanwhile, a few more links for those of you who’re reading or have just read the book. I tracked down a radio interview I remembered hearing around the time Chronic City came out. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff conducted a long phone interview with Lethem for his WFMU show The Media Squat — well worth the listen. Lethem lets loose on the new New York around the 19:50 mark.

And earlier this summer Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish connected the dots between an Etsy.tv clip on a secret Upper East Side bookstore and a New Yorker piece from 2008 which noted that Lethem had spent time as a teenager working for the same eccentric bookmonger. A window onto the kinds of secret knowledge Chronic City seems simultaneously to satirize and celebrate — or perhaps to mourn:

There’s No Place Like Here: Brazenhead Books from Etsy on Vimeo.

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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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Okay, so as attentive readers no doubt know by now, we’re in for some big changes around here in the coming year.

The biggest has to do with Cyrus’s temporary relocation to Abu Dhabi, where he will be on faculty (and has been, for the last year, an associate dean) at NYUAD.

What this will mean for the day-to-day workings of this blog isn’t entirely clear yet. We may have no disruption whatsoever. (Well, out of our own self-imposed disruptions from time to time.) But we won’t be teaching Writing New York in the coming spring, only the second time since 2003 that we haven’t taught the course.

Instead, we’re thinking about spreading the course over two semesters and running an open education on-line version of it. And you’ll all be invited. More on that to come in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, I threatened last week to work my vacation reading into the blog. I think this is the first vacation I’ve taken since 1994 when I don’t have a major writing deadline looming over me, and so I’ve vowed not to work while I’m out of town for the next few weeks. But I am taking Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City with me to give it a second read, and I may every few days post some links or minor thoughts.

What I’d like to build toward is a first annual PWHNY summer book club. If I can get it together over the next couple weeks, I’ll try to line up some formal participants to help us stage a conversation about the book near the end of August. If you’ve read the book — or if you’ve been looking for an excuse to — we welcome you to participate as we go. I enjoyed the book the first time through but had to read it pretty quickly for a student book club I ran last year. I’d like to slow down and think about it a little more carefully, not least because it features allusions to both the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls and to the band Television, which makes it somewhat relevant to recent content around these parts.

Are you in?

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