New York state of mind
In his new novel, Jonathan Lethem writes evocatively about his home town. Rosalie Doubal hears how he wants to pen the ultimate ‘hanging out’ book
Nestled at the heart of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is a duality. Leading with the tagline, ‘Lethem does Manhattan’, the Brooklynite’s latest owes much to a slight, yet significant switch in New York perspective. ‘Manhattan has a quality of being far way even when you are close to it,’ says Lethem. ‘For me it was always that dream city, but also a very ordinary place where people were living their lives. And that is the subject of the book: it is a place that is real and unreal at the same time.’
It’s a sprawling novel that proffers a torrid portryal of marijuana-fuelled Manhattanites and their ferociously surreal encounters with each other, their city and their crippling desire for truth. Centring on the friendship of wildcat pop critic Perkus Tooth and former child acting star Chase Insteadman, this tale of cultural obsessions and urban paranoia is punctuated by increasingly incongruous episodes. Eagles nest on window ledges, an escaped tiger roams the streets for months and an unidentified chocolate smell wafts across the city. Symbolically, a thick grey fog hangs over the business district and an artist digs vast chasms in the outer boroughs.
Surprisingly, many of the strangest events are based on fact. ‘I just grabbed them from the headlines,’ says Lethem. ‘I wanted the book to have a workaday prosaic quality, so you begin to wonder whether the world is just about as strange as this and we just don’t always pay any attention to it.’
Although its dense cultural tissue tethers it to America, much in Lethem’s text resonates beyond. ‘I think it could be transplanted pretty naturally,’ he says. ‘This is a very innately New York book, but not because its subject is friends hanging out.’
Those friends are lost in time. ‘The word “chronic” suggests a few different things but one is that it proposes a stuckness, a repeating in time,’ he says. ‘These characters are in the real world but are also slipping out of it.’
Critical obsessive Perkus Tooth is oblivious to the encroaching digital age and busies himself instead with madcap Marlon Brando conspiracies and the all-encompassing search for a mysterious vase. ‘He’s stranded on an island of personal obsessions,’ he says.
With such old world/new world comparisons, is Lethem representing some form of resistance to current developments, stationing himself at an outpost for an older New York? ‘I think it’s a surrogate resistance for the reader,’ he says. ‘Various versions of things that people are intimidated by or hold at arm’s length – the online life, for example – I tend to write about from the point of view of the reluctant participant.’
Much of this novel is about how we as individuals carve an existence from the teeming urban mass and how we navigate paths by cultivating friendships and sadly, obsessions. ‘Friends hanging out is a fundamental part of life, maybe a little underserved by fiction,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult to get that into fiction, but I’ve been trying to find ways to do it.’
Chronic City is published by Faber on Thu 7 Jan.