I first saw Jonathan Lethem in January 2005, as he stood in near darkness on the balcony at a bookstore in New York to announce the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award in fiction. Lethem, a solemn-eyed hipster, was a former NBCC award winner, for Motherless Brooklyn, his Tourette’s-inflected 1999 noir detective novel. He had just completed the triumphant launch of The Fortress of Solitude, his ode to 1970s Brooklyn, and won a MacArthur “genius” grant.
“The quality of pot that dealer would bring around would never have had so many seeds in it. Credit me with deniability. It shows I’m not dabbling in illegal substances."
NBCC president John Freeman made the introduction: “And now to announce the big kahuna…” The crowd hissed. Lethem took the microphone. “The meek and humble fiction category?” he improvised. After a smattering of applause, he read the list of finalists. Then he squeezed through the packed crowd and made a quick exit onto the icy streets.
At the time I figured Lethem was a cool customer who had headed across the bridge from Brooklyn to speak his lines but who wasn’t caught up in literary celebrity. There was more to it than that. “That was the Brooklynite approach to Manhattan,” he said when we spoke recently about his new novel, Chronic City. “Showing up and getting out of there. You never do just one thing. You’re going to meet a friend later, once they get you under the river.” We spoke by phone: He was shedding a cold, I was in the midst of one.
Lethem, who now splits his time between Brooklyn and Maine, was raised in the 1970s in the area now gentrified into Boerum Hill, an era and setting evoked in The Fortress of Solitude. With Chronic City, he claims Manhattan. “This book comes out of stuff that I’ve always wanted to say about being in the shadow of the great empire,” Lethem says. “When you’re from Brooklyn, it might feel, in my generation, you’re supposed to aspire to Manhattan. As it is for a lot of the rest of the universe, it’s the place to get to. It’s a much more intimate and chasing relationship because it’s right there, you can see it—so close and so far. Saturday Night Fever describes it perfectly.”
He describes a lifelong love-hate relationship: “The thing about being from Brooklyn and caring about Manhattan is that it belongs to you and it doesn’t. You’re a New Yorker, programmed to feel an immense proprietary thrill at anything New York has ever accomplished. You can be an overdog if you want, you can be a Yankees fan and get a job on Wall Street. But there is another legacy, the Brooklyn disenfranchised castoff resentment.”
Chronic City is set in a futuristically tweaked version of the Upper East Side. A giant tiger is on the rampage, destroying buildings. A pervasive fog has settled on a declining Wall Street, and Manhattan is suffering through a “ceaseless winter.” The narrator, Chase Insteadman, is a bland former child actor, an ornament at dinner parties who briefs socialites on his astro-fiancée, Janice, who is stranded in orbit (readers gobble up her heartfelt letters to him in the tabloids). Chase takes up with Perkus Tooth, a one-time rock critic whom Lethem describes as a “fugitive ecstatic” prone to “whirlwind intertextual eurekas.” Then there’s Oona Laszlo, a “bizarrely productive” ghostwriter who insinuates herself into Chase’s bed but won’t allow him into her own lair, and Ralph Abneg, a former Tompkins Square squatter turned mayoral aide (the tiger is his own personal urban-renewal nightmare).
Chronic City is by turns gorgeous, haunting, edgy, self-conscious, melancholy, murky, goofy, and fond. There are chewy passages about the subway system (“The New York subway is a vast disordered mind, obsessing in ruts carved by trauma a century earlier…”) and the Bloombergian mayor’s residence: “Money had its solvent powers, could dissolve the rear walls of a 19th-century townhouse to throw a dining room into what must have been the backyard, under a glass atrium that now worked as a blizzardy planetarium.”
Lethem says he’s always been fascinated with the way Manhattan has been a “city of the future.” “Even when I was coming of age, and the city was down at the heels, its defining characteristic was its ability to tear down the past and put up something shiny and new,” he says. “That’s its genius. Brooklyn is kind of stuck at the halfway point between the new world and the old. Manhattan is where the future is being enacted. It’s where you find episodes like the Giuliani-era Times Square makeover: a place that was completely muddled up in all sorts of involuntarily cultural marginalia is swept clean and replaced with a little pocket universe with the name Times Square appended to it. I wanted to exaggerate that quality, to take it up another few notches.”
During the nearly five years Lethem spent gathering materials and two and a half years writing Chronic City, Manhattan was a moving target: “Stuff I thought I was inventing would creep into truth. I’d read The New York Times and see aspects of it claimed by reality.” An aroma of chocolate permeates the Upper East Side at one point in Chronic City. “That I imported straight out of reality,” he says. “It was irresistible. The debate in the city at the time of the odor was, ‘Was it maple syrup?’ Bloomberg called it ‘the sweet smell of success.’”
The tiger? The eagles nesting on Abneg’s windowsill? “We’re so worldly as New Yorkers, and solipsistic as well,” he says. “There is a totally innocent naiveté I feel tenderly toward. When a bit of nature intrudes in Manhattan, it always makes the front page. The entire city is mobilized into a panic to catch the coyote in Central Park. Nature is like a homeopathic element, a tiny little ingredient that disrupts the entire organism. That’s very stirring to me and strange. I wanted to push that a little harder.”
I couldn’t help but bring up the constant dope smoking in the book. Being freshly stoned seems the portal to most of Perkus’ passions. But there seem to be a lot of seeds in Perkus’ pot, as he ends up straining it. What’s up with that? I asked. “It’s just a bit of business,” Lethem says. “A dumb error. The quality of pot that dealer would bring around would never have had so many seeds in it. Credit me with deniability. It shows I’m not dabbling in illegal substances.”
Still, he must have had fun with the names of the brands Chase, Perkus, Abneg, Oona et al. smoke—Chronic, Ice, Silver Haze, Funky Monkey, Northern Lights (the last named after Janice’s stranded space ship). “Those names are straight out of the dealer’s catalogues,” he says. “I made them up only when I began mashing them together with elements of my book—the giant tiger, the name of the space station.”
Lethem always has music going while working. With Chronic City, talismanic songs for the novel’s two moods were Mick Jagger’s frenetic “Shattered” (Perkus plays the Some Girls album obsessively) and, subliminally, Sufjan Stevens’ “The Seer’s Tower.” “The song is very quiet and melancholy; it’s the keynote of the interchapters where Chase stops telling the story and looks out the window at the birds and the church tower outside his window,” Lethem says. “As much as I love the claptrap contraption plot I invented, the soul of this book is in that fugue part of the book, those stopping moments that restore human scale to our lives.”
Is Chronic City a love story? “Yeah. It’s completely affectionate. There is a male friendship love story. And a love triangle [Chase, Janice, Oona] inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart is in love with a woman who doesn’t really exist, who is just an idea.”
There’s another burst of jackhammers. Then Lethem’s voice resumes. “It’s a love story in which you’re worried about what’s going to happen. It’s easier to talk about the ideas, but I was very much with these characters myself.”
Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.