West Side Highway

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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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