"Chronic" overachiever: Interview with Jonathan Lethem

The writer talks about his new novel's ambivalent take on New York, and how cultural obsession can lead to madness

Published October 23, 2009 10:24PM (EDT)

Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem

As Jonathan Lethem grew into what critics like to call one of our most important novelists, he became increasingly difficult to pigeonhole; fluid across genres, Lethem's biggest books ("Motherless Brooklyn," "Fortress of Solitude") can feel like sparkling new works from a new author rather than someone you've enjoyed before. His latest, "Chronic City," with its flashes of pot-fueled magic realism and ripped-from-the-tabloid-headline riffs again reads as something completely different from Lethem, but no less enthralling.

"Chronic City" features one hapless Chase Insteadman, a former child actor adrift in New York as his fiancée, an astronaut, hovers above, prevented from returning to Earth by an orbital minefield. He soon falls under the mad spell of Perkus Tooth, a writer and inveterate cultural critic-obsessive, who becomes friend and Svengali, sharing with him his love of all things Brando and an increasing paranoia.

Lethem stopped by the Salon New York office to discuss his new novel, his Brooklynite  critique of Manhattan, his MacArthur "genius" grant and the dark side of cultural obsession.

Most anyone with a deep love of film, books, movies has had a Perkus Tooth in their lives at some point, sort of tutoring them on the good stuff. I read that Paul Nelson was an inspiration.

Sure, Paul Nelson was part of that image for me. I mean, Paul Nelson was not frantic, actually. And he wasn't a dandy, and he wasn't a pot smoker, so there's a lot of ways in which if you knew Paul Nelson you'd never associate the two. But something about Chase's innocence meeting Perkus' cultural worldliness comes from the fact that as a 20-something -- 21, 22 -- I kind of fell into Paul's sphere for a little while and he gave me this instant education in his version of American vernacular culture. Ross Macdonald, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Chet Baker. And it was this flood of references for me to sort out and absorb and he became very important. A lot of the things that Paul taught me to value are still really the center of my sensibility.

But there was also something poignant about the amount that Paul depended on the power of his cultural searches and what they unearthed for his sustenance. It was like they were his oxygen, and I adored it and I think I identified with it at the same time as it can't help but serve as a kind of warning ... just so many people I know who have at some point become voracious about cultural collecting, cultural searching -- their identification tips over. I've done it. And it's, to me, so human and so poignant and so compelling and also terrifying to go into that place. And you know, at the same time it's just finally a metaphor for what anyone does, which is search for meaning, constantly trying to ask yourself if you can find in the environment somewhere, the natural world, your family tree, some version of politics or culture or in this case pop culture, a description that makes you understand why you're here. So in that sense it's not culturally specific at all.

What do you mean by a "warning"?

Well, just as critical theory, critique, tips into paranoia -- finding patterns that don't exist -- collecting can cross that line from being the quest for value into being the quest for the subterranean, impossible artifact that will somehow validate all of your existence ... You know, I used to know, I still do know, a lot of [Bob] Dylan collectors, and he's begun demystifying a lot of the secrets by issuing them himself, but these things used to circulate as talismanic objects. And there was always the myth of the song that was even better, the musician who'd come out of some session and say, "Well, yeah sure, you heard 'Blind Willie McTell' because you've got a tape of it, but there was another song that he debuted in the studio that day that was never written down and we all begged him to play it again and he never did." And it's sort of like, "Well, if that song's even better than 'Blind Willie McTell,' then what about the song that Dylan wrote but didn't play that day, or what about the song that Dylan never even wrote! That might be the best one!" It's a path of madness, and certainly I wanted to portray that terrifying descent to some extent.

What's fascinating about a character like Perkus is there's no echo chamber, it's all in his head. He's coming up with his own fictions, really, without any enablers.

In that way it relates really strongly to a book like "The Fortress of Solitude," which is overtly nostalgic. I mean, Perkus is his own fortress of solitude. He's trying to keep a diorama of the version of New York City that means the most to him alive. And for him the Tompkins Square riots are still fresh news and Tom Verlaine breaking up Television is like a fresh tragedy. It's all at the edge of his nerves, the world that means the most to him, and he's trying to bring other people into that system of values.

Chase Insteadman is such an unformed thinker about culture, the world. Do you think you were like that at 21?

I probably wasn't very like Chase Insteadman when I was 20 -- I might be more like him now in a funny way. Or let's say that the ways in which I identify with Chase as a character have to do with the peculiar fate of being slightly known, and an author is by definition not a famous person. In our culture, where fame is a currency and we see it awarded on television in all sorts of strange ways, authors never register, they're not even a blip. But in a tiny kind of weird, subjective version of my own experience, the world I wander through, in a bookstore or just now going into the offices of the New York Times Book Review, people are like [looking over his shoulder in surprise ] -- and I'm about to be on tour and play this part inevitably. Ian McEwan has a great line where he says, "Book touring is like being an employee of your former self." But it's an acting role, you have to authenticate -- yes, I'm the writer who wrote that book -- nightly for people, and it's kind of silly and I'm not an actor, I'm no good in any sense except that I have backed into by necessity the ability to play myself. And the moment you do that, you develop this very obscure, uncomfortable double sense of self and that can be very haunting. And that's what I wanted to capture when I wrote about Chase's sort of mediocre celebrity. The way he's still remembered for something he himself can barely remember doing is something I feel a strange degree of identification with.

You feel like you're acting?

There are times when someone wants to talk to me about Tourette's syndrome -- well, "Motherless Brooklyn" was published 10 years ago. It means I wrote it 12, 13 years ago, I conceived it longer ago. The person who got excited about that isn't very close to the surface for me anymore. So I have to do this strange, polite kind of acting bit where I reinhabit the role of the author of "Motherless Brooklyn."

You've said "Chronic City" came from your distinctly Brooklyn point of view. What kind of critique, do you think, is it of Manhattan?

Of course I shudder if I think I made a deliberate social critique, because it's not mostly a great path for a storyteller to take. But rather than a social critique or especially one of any particular present moment, I felt what I was doing was exploring some of the ambivalent power of Manhattan. And I think it's always resided there, as long as I've been alive and lived next door to Manhattan -- it is a kind of virtual reality. There's something unreal about Manhattan, it's a creation of will and aspiration and money. And unlike most places on earth it's not rooted in its past, it's rooted in its possibilities and its future, and it's always being remade and revamped.

Now, having said that, what makes Manhattan, what makes NYC, what makes the world more complicated than any description, than the one I've just offered, is that it's also real -- people go on living their lives in buildings, eating food, wearing clothes, trying to pay the rent. And I wanted to find a way to put this doubleness into the book. This fact that a place can be a virtual reality and still be so stuck in our world, our real world, that's what I really cared to say about Manhattan.

When I first moved to Manhattan "Motherless Brooklyn" had just come out. In that book, Brooklyn is grounded in this kind of firmament, whereas Manhattan is much more sketchy, changing, fast-paced ...

The compression you've made, I've offered a similar description a few times, and I always look from the Brooklyn point of view that what I find so nourishing of Brooklyn is that it wants to be the big city, but it falls short -- it's always half-renovated, and half-gentrified. So you see these lumps of the future lying alongside the past, the recalcitrant chunks of the past that won't go. And they're just side by side and everyone has to just live with this kind of awkwardness. And whereas Manhattan often tries to remake itself and succeeds, startlingly this crazy new building will come up or crazy new neighborhood will exist and everyone seems to believe in it and move in right away, and it's like, OK, now TriBeCa is a good place to go for food. What? Yes? Really? OK.

Back to Perkus, I kept thinking that, especially in the current climate, what a dying breed that sort of cultural critic is.

You're right, it's always a dying breed. One of the things I'm very devoted to in Perkus is the joke, seems like just a running joke, "I am not a rock critic." In the end he kind of makes this tormented confession: "I am a rock critic!" I feel like there's something very moving to me about the pioneer generation -- [Robert] Christgau, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Paul Nelson, Greg Shaw -- who by force of will said, "We're going to write seriously about this thing that everyone thinks is a joke." It was like founding a school of criticism on bubblegum wrappers. The culture did not believe that rock 'n' roll could sustain analysis. The records were supposed to blow away and disappear after they fell off the charts, no one was even supposed to care who made them after awhile. They were just pop. And they located the connection between this material and American culture at large, between this material and art. And by doing so they created a language for themselves -- that was an act of bravery. I really think it was as bold a gesture as a lot of art making itself. They made something that now of course can be quite complacent and automatic.

We all feel almost that there's a wearisome familiarity with the inside language of music criticism, at least when it's used in a received way. But that didn't exist, so I think of Perkus as -- of course the dates are off, he couldn't have been one of the founders -- but he conveys some of that spirit of trying to say something that no one thinks you're even allowed to try to say. This book is partly about the emotion that accompanies trying to name unnamable things that you see in sets around you. Whether it's conspiracies or facts about the city that somehow are inexpressible facts. It's tormenting not to have the language to put it across and Perkus is tormented by that. But he's also very dedicated. To look at him 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.

So what was it like creating after you got the genius grant?

Well, the first thing to say is that I've been a very lucky writer, a very lucky artist, and the luck began before the MacArthur. The MacArthur didn't arrive in the hands of someone sleeping on couches. I found my way mercifully to very, very -- I have a very, very good editor at a very strong publishing house who supports me brilliantly and has now for more than a decade. So, that's something -- forget the MacArthur -- that's something any writer should dream of. I had a lot of opportunities that came with being capably published, brilliantly published. The MacArthur did free me, especially given that it came at a moment when I was -- you know, I'm 45 now, I'm married now, I have a 2-year-old -- I was starting to not want to live the scrappy, year-to-year, no health insurance kind of life. I needed to outfit myself with a few more middle-class amenities just to be able to look my wife in the eye. So it was kind of a perfect time.

But also I saw it as a kind of vote that I should do more of what I'd already been doing, but do it even better, do it more passionately, do it more deeply. I really do feel that this book is connected to the MacArthur in the sense that it's an ambitious book and a big book, but it's also, I'm not trying to please anyone but myself. It's a very willful, very personal, I would agree if you said very eccentric book in a lot of ways. And that was what the MacArthur told me I should do. I believe I was right to take it as that kind of message.

The book dropped this week, reviews are coming up, the book tour's going to start. Does the money free you from really having to worry about the stuff --

Let's not exaggerate the good fortune. My MacArthur runs out in a year, and the really tragic thing about getting the MacArthur award is that the only person in the entire universe who will never get a MacArthur is someone who already got one. I'm on my own. It made the last few years so much easier, and it's hard to know how I could have gotten this book done without it.

By Kerry Lauerman

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