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