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PODCAST: Jonathan Lethem at the Coolidge | October 22 [MP3]

 

Jonathan Lethem seems the ultimate New Yorker: Born and raised in Brooklyn, the 45-year-old writer first earned literary cachet with his 1999 crime fiction novel, Motherless Brooklyn. His 2003 The Fortress of Solitude is a semi-autobiographic work, also set in Brooklyn. Now, Lethem's touring to promote his newest New York novel, Chronic City, in which narrator Chase Insteadman (a former child actor) befriends an eccentric, marijuana-pumped culture writer named Perkus Tooth. Chase is a nearly empty vessel floating in a sea of his own apathy and good looks; Perkus is the sort of guy who re-types each issue of the New Yorker to escape the constrictions of its classic font. The two men join forces to explore the realities and surrealities of Manhattan and their own lives, usually while stoned. We quickly learn that the New York in this novel is not at all normal – it’s a dystopified replica in which the New York Times prints a “war-free” edition every day and an enormous tiger runs amok after escaping from the zoo.

At his Booksmith-organized talk at the Coolidge Corner Theatre last Thursday, Lethem read most of the first chapter of Chronic City, in which Chase first meets the quirky and neurotic Perkus and eventually finds himself waxing philosophical over a couple of joints in Perkus's sparse Manhattan apartment. Chase's fiancee, Janice, is a famous astronaut currently stranded in orbit aboard the International Space Station, a plight that brings the narrator’s needy boredom into focus. "In those days, with Janice far away, I lived too much on the surface of things, parties, gossip, assignations in which I was the go-between or vicarious friend,” Lethem read.

DOWNLOAD: Jonathan Lethem reads at the Coolidge Corner Theatre [mp3]


Perkus is the catalyst for Chase’s journey below that surface. The blossoming of a fresh and strange friendship between the two men defies the metallic image of the New York skyscrapers plastered over Chronic City's cover -- and in spite of Lethem's New York-ness, it feels as though Chase and Perkus live in their own chronic, smoke-filled city, indoors, behind and above Manhattan's overarching shellac. What occurs between the walls of Perkus’s apartment, his “bohemian grotto,” is what shapes the duo’s relationship with New York, not the inverse. In this sense, Lethem actually moves away from New York and into the space between Chase and Perkus.

"Where Perkus took me, in his ranting, in his enthusiasms, in his abrupt, improbable asides was the world inside the world," Lethem read from the final words of the chapter. "Perkus was the opposite of my distant astronaut fiancee -- my caring for him could matter, on a daily basis."

Lethem explained to his audience that he'd been heavily influenced by Saul Bellow in the development of Chronic City's characters. "I was really, really discovering Saul Bellow and his novels," he said. "These kind of epics of male vanity and male friendship, usually with an unbelievably brilliant first-person narrative talking about a crazier and more challenging friend ... and so I thought I would try and do some of the Bellow stuff." (Lethem notes that he turned the thing "on its head" by making Chase a rather dim narrator, rather than the typical Bellow-esque wit.) And what could foster male vanity and friendship better than two lonely New Yorkers getting high and eating burgers together?

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