Jonathan Lethem Takes Manhattan

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In Jonathan Lethem’s new novel Chronic City, he leaves his familiar Brooklyn haunts and enters the anonymous Upper East Side, where the moneyed and the mundane co-exist. The book’s overarching theme is deciphering between the real and the fake, and in the process Lethem blends together unreal moments from the city’s recent past (remember the maple syrup incident?), with fantastical elements that don’t seem so far-fetched (like a “war-free” edition of The New York Times). But the characters are Lethem’s most memorable creations to date, particularly his two central figures. Chase Insteadman is the wealthy star of a syndicated sitcom whose life is devoid of stimulus until he meets Perkus Tooth, a pot smoking, pop culture know-it-all more concerned with obscure films than anything material. We asked Lethem, who reads tonight at Fort Greene’s Greenlight Bookstore, about the inspiration for the book, the real-life Perkus Tooths, and his favorite TV shows.

Did you always want to write a book about Manhattan or was this a reaction to being so closely tied to Brooklyn? When you grow up an outer borough kid you always have this kind of double feeling about Manhattan. On the one hand it’s like it is for everyone, it’s this place of idealization and aspiration, like being John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever–you want to get over there. But at the same time it is yours. You’re a New Yorker, you’ve been taught that the five boroughs are one and you should have a kind of proprietary feeling about it. And you can go there–you can get on the subway and walk around even if you don’t have access to all the corridors of everything I’ve been writing about in Chronic City. You can buy a slice of pizza in Greenwich Village and your feet are on the ground and Manhattan is seemingly yours. It’s this combination of an idea and a real place that are somehow mixed up together and you can’t completely separate them.

But did you have the idea of writing a novel about Manhattan before, say, Motherless Brooklyn?
I had thoughts about Perkus Tooth as a character for a very long time. He was kind of a character in search of a book. And then this scenario, this Upper East Side novel, came to me in one rush in 2004. It was very strongly associated with re-electing George Bush, and the feeling of collapse that I felt…It was as if 9/11 had been taken away from New York City. It didn’t belong to us anymore, now it was just a symbol, and so that’s another of form of something real becoming virtual. And that struck me as heartbreaking. It made New York feel very hollow to me, and I wanted to capture that sense of poignancy, that the city can be so mighty and so self-regarding and egotistical, but it’s also so irrelevant in the life of the country in some ways. Its beliefs and understandings of what had gone on were not the ones that prevailed. Instead, we were just a flag that was being waved around.

I was imagining you were writing this during the boom times. Yeah, it’s an attack on boom times, but also I think anyone with any kind of antennae smelled the bubble collapsing. It’s a great fiction that it all happened at once. It was collapsing for years I think, on many other levels. That might be news to someone who worked at AIG but I don’t think that was news to anyone else that we were in an unreal, unsustainable place.

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In the book the city seems to have no room for an odd savant like Perkus Tooth, who spends more time being pop-culture obsessed than being “productive.” How many Perkus Tooths do you know, and how many are still in New York? In my life, it’s almost like a role that some friends have occupied at times. Very few people are as extreme as he is, but friends have visited that place for a time and I think I’ve even been the Perkus Tooth for someone else at times. But I can think of five or six friends who I had very much in mind when I was getting started writing about him. (Once he becomes real on the page, that thinking falls away and I just think about the character.)

I guess by definition the book is about Perkus Tooth as an endangered species, at least in Manhattan, and I think that is true to an extent, but he’s also a pretty indomitable spirit, one that can ever be chased off. He’s pretty tenacious.

Now that the recession is “over,” do you think Manhattan will ever get its edge back (and characters like Perkus)? Oh, that idea that Manhattan needs to be broken or humbled in order for artists to reassert themselves or become edgy again is a suspect, romantic idea. I mean, what was wrong with the city in the 70s and 80s that corresponds in so many people’s minds with a kind of “Downtown” renaissance, that’s a very romantic idea. I think there’s plenty of great art still being made in the city. The other kinds of “edge” (I’m not sure how to take the question) don’t matter much to me and actually I think they’re sort of permanent too. The kind of weird intensities that money and power bring with them–the thousand dollar omelets and so on–I don’t think that stuff ever really even blinked. It’s like the recession didn’t matter.

It’s almost as though the less wealthy the rest of the country is, the more important it is for Manhattan to go on being this emblem, this projection of careless privilege. And it seems to me to do a great job of that. It never stops.

Do you think the boom and bust changed Brooklyn in any significant way?
Well it’s a classic Brooklyn result. The whole zone that I live in is dotted with these empty condominiums. Ugly, 10-story, slick steel and glass structures that were meant to house the rush of new people into the glorious downtown Brooklyn boom that isn’t going to be, and everyone’s staring into these buildings with their pleading signs, saying “Prices Slashed” for these faceless condominium apartments. I mean what an absolutely typical result from the Brooklyn perspective.

How so? Because this is the place of unfinished gentrification. It’s always a project that sits there or molders or is compromised before it’s even built, and that somehow is the Brooklyn story, I think. Manhattan is like successful uglification. Brooklyn is failed uglification.

Chase’s claim to fame is a sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Do you have any guilty TV pleasures? Oh sure, one of my thoughts to myself when I started this book was that it was kind of an interminable and nightmarish Seinfeld episode–the three guys and the girl hanging out in the apartment having these self- obsessed conversations about nothing. But my favorite sitcoms are typical of my age. Barney Miller was always my favorite New York TV show and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

Any new favorites?
I’m a latecomer to this but recently I realized that 30 Rock is incredibly funny. I tend to live in a time lag. I’m like a used bookstore guy, so whatever was hot 10 years ago is my breaking news.

Sent by Nicole. Cover image courtesy of Doubleday and portrait by Mara Faye Lethem.

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