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In Between the Dream and the Doorknob:
On Jonathan Lethem’s Fictions

Stendhal dedicates The Charterhouse of Parma to “the happy few,” a reference to a speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V in which the happy few are men lucky enough to be profoundly outnumbered in a battle. So Stendhal’s dedication is to those happy few soldiers who take on ridiculous—nay, fatal—odds, but also, at least in part, to those happy few who get the reference. This seduction through the evocation of all those excluded, all those who lack the cultural password, is the seduction sung from, well, a fortress of solitude. A Delphic invitation and siren song at once. That’s what comes to mind when I open up a new Jonathan Lethem novel.
Likely the proudest quoter we have in literature today, Lethem wrote a particularly brilliant specimen of the art for Harper’s Magazine in 2007. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” is a collage of quotes from other places—though you don’t find this out until the end—with no passage wholly original to Lethem. Paragraphs here, phraselets there . . . from academic essays and chatty screeds and dusty old volumes of fiction itself. At the end of the assemblage, Lethem explains that he has modified the borrowed language throughout as he saw fit. Not much, though, and yet the parts stitch together into something that is singular, original, pure Lethem. We can see the same magpie originality in Lethem’s novels and stories, so often playing with genre, and this aesthetic is one for which Lethem has been much praised and maligned. One could call this genre-play postmodern, but that would be a mislabeling, if for no other reason than that the wide overuse and abuse of the term postmodern have left the word utterly sere of meaning. Regardless of what you term Lethem’s singular sound, these moves between original and “original” language, between plain speech and speaking “trippingly on the tongue,” constitute the foundation of Lethem’s art, and in his most recent novel, they’re also the walls, the windows, the bedspreads, and the trinkets found in forgotten drawers.
Chronic City, Lethem’s eighth and latest (and I’m going to go ahead and also say greatest) novel, is simultaneously a comedy and a tragedy and an elegy and a madly encoded map, printed on paper that you suspect has a third side. Chase Insteadman, a former child actor living off the fumes of his early fame, narrates; he’s engaged to an astronaut lost in orbit who sends him romantic missives from space, missives which are published prominently in the city newspapers, especially the War Free Editions. So there’s that. On earth, Chase has two main friends: Perkus Tooth and Richard Abneg. Perkus Tooth is the novel’s schlemiel hero, minorly famous for his 1970s collaged broadsides. More important, though: he suffers from migraines; he exults in “ellipsistic” moods, which may be just the inverse image of his migraines; he seems to have read, watched, and listened to everything of cultural importance; it’s unclear how he makes a living; and he’s deep into what he believes is an important conspiracy involving Marlon Brando, Gnuppets, and chaldrons, chaldrons in the novel being little-known mesmerizing vaselike things seen only in images and auctioned off for enormous amounts on eBay. (Also regarding Tooth: no, it isn’t inappropriate for his silly name to call to mind the Pynchon line about tooth decay not necessarily entailing a conspiracy of bacteria.) Tooth’s odd foil is Richard Abneg, a onetime outsider political activist now making his living as an adviser to the power insiders.
The three friends spend much of their and the novel’s time smoking dope at Perkus’s rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side.[1] Oh, also by the by, there’s a giant tiger terrorizing Manhattan, and Richard seems to have some secret knowledge of it that he won’t share. All that is just the surface story, believe it or not. Not that surfaces should be disparaged. In the architecture of Chronic City, they often prove the site of real depth.
Like Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude before it, Chronic City features near-countless cameos. So, yes, in addition to eBay and Marlon Brando, Wikipedia appears . . . the opening scene takes place in the offices of the Criterion Collection . . . Chase and Perkus eat often at a Jackson Hole diner . . . and there are ever-dragging and oft-discussed plans for the construction of a Second Avenue subway line. And lots more, too. The scent of maple syrup, for instance, that “attacked” our real Manhattan periodically over the last few years is here transmuted into a mysterious cocoa scent, a similar menace lacking any real menace. The Web world of Second Life and the Chinese virtual gold miners from World of Warcraft also make thinly veiled appearances, and we happily mis-recognize the Muppets in the Gnuppets (a particularly nice fusion for TV junkies who remember the puppet gnus that used to deliver the news on the Canadian version of Saturday Night Live.) All these masked players put on a show that’s exuberant and tragic and slapsticky at once, but it also has the feel of a medieval mystery play. The connections between Lethem-land and our own—these cameos of reality, these disorienting moves—feel like, well, clues, or parables, or codes. They feel like they mean something.[2]
Tonight only! Our real world! Appearing in Lethem-land! A tired claim of critics is that these cameos smite flat the emotional rotundity of a novel with a postmodern thwack. (See above for my feeling about the usefulness of “postmodern.”) They do this, supposedly, by drawing attention to the fictionality of the fictional world. It all sounds sufficiently convincing in theory, and is probably even genuinely true of some texts, but the claim fails miserably in Lethem-land, where, if anything, the opposite is true. The metaphysics of Chronic City, for example, is more like that found in Don Quixote, the seeming paradox of which is that while there’s no character whose status as a fiction is as prominently underscored within his selfsame novel, Don Quixote nevertheless remains the most vividly real character in Western literature. I feel I know the guy better than I know my mom, or my neighbors, or myself.
Maybe this isn’t so surprising, though, and maybe not even a paradox, not for me, anyhow. The fictional world of novels and films has always seemed to me more real than the haphazard haze of my own life; when what I recognize from what we generally call the real world cameos in that realer realm of the imagined, I get the shivery feeling that I might really exist, as if that was what had been in doubt all along.
It’s like that old trope in science fiction, whereby the realness of a world one suspects of being virtual is tested by, say, opening up a television set to see if there’re any wires inside. (Lethem himself uses this trope in his sci-fi short story “Five Fucks.”) The idea being to push the question of just how fully ontologically realized a space is. The referencing in Chronic City contributes to my faith that if I go to, say, turn on a sink in a back room of an unnumbered apartment, on the tiniest of streets not even mentioned in the novel but merely implied, the water will actually run. And being able to imagine that water running makes it easier for me to believe that my neighbor’s tap works, too. Between those two taps is, somehow, the place to be, the only cathedral I’ve ever worshipped at.[3]
Maybe I should have started in between (if I’d known how to get there), as that’s the X on the treasure map of Chronic City. In between fiction and reality, sincerity and sham, the dream and the doorknob—any old in-between will do. Between love and vengeance is a good one. Between bowing down before tradition and raising a mighty paw against it. How do you reach an in-between? Sometimes by fingering a hitherto undetected seam. Or by Buster Keaton–style knocking your head against a wall in frustration until the wall suddenly spins and you’ve arrived at an unforeseen space, facing an elusive treasure; you reach out to touch the more-than-a-MacGuffin, and this makes the false wall spin again, re-abandoning you back into the familiar world, often misleadingly known as home. Repeat with variations. When you can skate gracefully on this maddening surface, you are at the heart of things.
A possible in-between: Chronic City takes place mostly on the dowdily glamorous Upper East Side of Manhattan. “Money has been here so long it’s a little decrepit,” Chase says of the neighborhood. “If one of money’s laws is that it can never buy taste, here is where it went after it failed, and here’s what it bought instead.” Taste, however, proves itself an odd and delicate flower, and the soil it thrives in best is found in the cracks of money’s sidewalks. Case in point, Perkus Tooth.
With basically no financial capital, but with vast cultural capital between his ears (and in scattered DVDs and books), Perkus Tooth lives not in some edgy neighborhood but, rather, in a rent-controlled apartment “on East 84th Street, in one of those anonymous warrens tucked behind innocuous storefronts.” It’s not a destination findable in any New York magazine guide to bohemian hangouts, which is part of why it’s real and part of why it’s not easy to believe in. “Waiting for Perkus Tooth’s door buzzer to sound and finding my way inside,” Chase says of his first visit there, “I felt my interior map expand to allow for the reality of this place, the corridor floor’s lumpy checkerboard mosaic, the cloying citrus of the superintendent’s disinfectant oil, the bank of dented brass mailboxes and the keening of a dog from behind an upstairs door, alerted to the buzzer and my scuffling boot heels.” The heightened sensory awareness of the world signals the entrance into this unlabeled cultural space, a secret vault that even the owners of the bank don’t know about.
Let’s call bohemianism a belief in there being an “outside” of the market, a belief in the existence of, and habitability of, spaces not colonized by Capital. (It’s easy to imagine a Lethem soon-to-be-fallen admired older-man character saying such a thing.) Perkus’s apartment, then, is one of the last places of worship for this old and perhaps untenable faith. “The place was a bohemian grotto, the kitchen a kitchen only in the sense of having a sink and a stove built in, and a sticker-laden refrigerator wedged into an alcove beside the bathroom door. Books filled the open cabinet spaces above the sink. The countertop was occupied by a CD player and hundreds of disks, in and out of jewel cases, many hand-labeled with a permanent marker.” Even the kitchen is spared being a mere means to an end.
Reaching such an insecure temple is tricky, however, since anything that makes it onto an actual map becomes a dominion of capital; the place can’t be found through straightforward directions. How to get there? I don’t know. But my natural schoolgirl mentality, exacerbated by the clue-reading habit that Lethem’s prose puts you into, sent me to Proust, where many indicators pointed. (Spires! Scents! Signs!) Chase finds Perkus—in the inner sanctum of cultural capital—the same way that Marcel in Remembrance of Things Past makes his way to love, or to the past: by chance and misperception. Chase mistakenly identifies Perkus as an actual Criterion employee in the opening scene, though both are just passing through the office. Perkus immediately impresses Chase by referencing seven movies he doesn’t know and pushing a heavy novel on him with the urgency of a recruiter for the Masonic lodge. Chase’s misreading of Perkus ends up delivering Chase right where he would have wanted to go, if he had known how to look for it.
But to get back to Perkus more than once involves the interpretation of clues as enigmatic as those given by Gilberte amid the hawthorns. (A nice parallel to a reader’s own happily uncertain wanderings through Lethem’s clue-like references.) Here’s Richard Abneg, the third friend, in an early scene, lighting up the way from wealth to Perkus’s place. It is a late night at an apartment which is the wealthiest nook of a tremendously wealthy Upper East Side apartment building, and at this point Chase doesn’t even know that he and Abneg have an acquaintanceship with Perkus in common. Fancy drinks have been had, a moneyed heiress mostly seduced. “Then Abneg shocked me,” Chase says. “Looking me in the eye, he lifted thumb and forefinger to his lips as if smooching the damp stub of a joint . . . His message to me, if it wasn’t too much to read into the single gesture, seemed to be see you later, at Perkus’s. Away from these fucking rich people.” And they go. That was one of the easier clues, though. Often you have to know trivia about Montgomery Clift movies or unmade Kubrick films in order to get access to the gates of the Oracle.
Before I began reading Chronic City, but when it had already begun its seduction of exclusion—just by sitting there on my kitchen table, somehow coyly—I found myself writing to my neighbor (who, it will turn out, is a Lethem character himself, but more on that later; and why we write to each other more than actually say hello face-to-face is a Lethem-like riddle I’ll leave open), telling him, “I re-remembered that above all when I think of Lethem I think of how many books I haven’t read, and albums I haven’t heard, and secret passageways and cults I don’t know about. I feel very unprepared . . . I have been copycatting him for a few weeks now in reading pounds of ‘pulp,’ but I didn’t get there so ‘legitimately,’ I started with reprints from the Feminist Press that were at the clearance table of the bookstore; he would have picked up early copies hidden in some overflowing used bookstore on Court Street.”
My neighbor knows Lethem a bit, having adapted his first novel into a screenplay, and so I may have been feeling about for some kind of invitation or reassurance or decoder ring, though honestly I’m not sure. But I figured that confessing myself a pretender might be the first step to being recognized as true kindred, at least to myself. With Chronic City, though, such anxiety proved overblown and anticipatory, pure crush anxiety, because once I started the novel I remembered just how goddamn genial Lethem’s prose is, even when it sails past at eleven levels and I follow along at just one or two. Part of the charm of Chronic City, as well as the distraction necessary for its magic, is that we have as our apparent guide a narrator on par with our own cluelessness. “I’ll admit,” Chase tells us of Abneg’s soon-to-be girlfriend, “she was revealed (too late) (and unimportantly) as erotic to me, as she’d never been until seeing Abneg’s hairy fingers brushing the nape of her neck, and guiding her, like a virtuoso repositioning a cello, by the hip. So I learned how Richard Abneg, like Perkus Tooth, was someone who could uncover what hid in plain sight.” But like Chase, even when we miss the clues, the party is still a pretty nice place to be. It just gets better when you learn how to read it better. And, eventually, at moments when you feel like you’ve read through to the depths, you find yourself at the surface again, as if that were the secret all along. As if you were Alice on her adventure, not the many adventures down the rabbit hole, but the one back up to the lawn of the real world, reading a book beneath a tree.
I said earlier that the fictional world feels more real to me than our own, that when the real cameos in the storied, reality feels, well, more fully realized. But that’s not quite right, or at least not quite the whole story. There’s us stepping into the fictional world, but what about the fictional world stepping out to meet us? I’m thinking of a story I know of a friend’s mother who once tripped while walking on Fifth Avenue and was caught and steadied by, of all strangers, Cary Grant. She told me she’d never felt so alive in her life. Maybe if Don Quixote makes it to the breakfast table, you can really taste the cereal.
As if to counterpoint the cameos of reality in Chronic City, I learned—when I was not yet very deep into Lethem-land—that since I’d made my very recent move to storied Brooklyn, I’d been living, unbeknownst to me, next to the aforementioned neighbor, who is, among other things, a character in Lethem’s fiction. Really. He’s well known for other reasons, but for the small passageway of this essay, I’ll just say that Hampton—that’s his real-life storied name—is literally the central character in “Lucky Alan,” a Lethem story from 2007. The story’s straightforwardly based on a classic Hampton anecdote, about a different former neighbor of his, from when Hampton lived, à la Perkus, in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. Leaving out details of a mail-order bride and sudden deaths and little-known urban parrots and a love of old movies, one could sum up “Lucky Alan” as a hope for and anxiety about living in the world of the imagination’s making. A paean and a warning at once.
There’s definitely a bit of Hampton in Perkus Tooth as well,[4] which means that I, just by chance, found myself reading a fictional account of my neighbor’s life, and a kind of portal thus opened into the real world of his apartment, an apartment I could have found, and did find, only by chance. It took me a while to catch on that a partial incarnation of Perkus lived next door to me, though the writing was, nearly, on the wall. Here, for example, is something Hampton wrote to me early on about, by chance, Lethem:
He’s the tender grand inquisitor quizzing the etiology of epistemology into an ontological dead-end that burns with a consoling light which is ⤨something I once said to him that he seemed to agree with but I couldn’t be sure, not that he’s coy, but he is a stoic streamliner full of dark quiet clowns, as in a line in his current book which is “it was possible to wish to become a dog only exactly up to that point where it became completely impossible.”
Another time Hampton wrote me:
. . . a Sol Steinberg continent of bureaucratic crisscrosses with aleatory spaces of silly in between, all the clodhopper conformers sticking to the straight lines but once in a while one of ’em either falls or makes up his mind and jumps into one of the silly holes, rabbit holes—Buggs Bunny [sic] does it and Lethem does too. I can tell by what makes him laugh or what he says that makes me laugh. Can tell he’s no stranger to the unnameables at the bottom of those holes. He’s a hole hunter as a matter of fact. Why I think he’s smart is because I doubt there’s anything he couldn’t understand. Of course that’s predicated on what I think, so the whole equation could collapse right there.
And another time, when we were trying to set a time to get pizza:
. . . by seven I’ll be gone. lies, that’s what we’ll talk about. lies are about secrets. secrets is what we’ll lie about. Lie-about liars. lying about lying. the lye in the eyes of liars.
That’s not how anyone else I know in the real world writes. (Not anyone, anyway, who is actually fun to be with and is beloved by dogs, both of which Hampton is.) His offhand e-mails reminded me of liner notes for, say, a film that doesn’t exist but might; something that Perkus Tooth might have been hired by Criterion, on freelance, to write. Compare—just for fun, let’s say—Hampton’s way of writing and talking to this bit of Perkus Tooth:
Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them part of the world’s experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished.
Or this Hampton-like Perkus effusion:
But in truth, moderns live in a world order in which the primitive “physics” or “chemistry” of things (“reality,” the measurable and controllable thingliness of things strictly taken) is overwhelmingly eclipsed, reduced nearly to negligibility by the power relation or actualities that have strategized and shaped the thing-complexes among which moderns live.
And it was hard, again, for me not to feel that these parallels, well, meant something.
Like Perkus, Hampton seems to know everything about culture. (Probably not about mortgages or dentists.) One evening he recited the elaborate postscript of a 1934 documentary called Man of Aran—not only had I never seen it, I’d never even heard of it, but it is, of course, “classic”—and another time he went on about the uncelebrated notebooks of Max Frisch. As with Perkus Tooth, I didn’t know for a long time how Hampton managed to pay his rent. Which somehow mattered to me. I would see him wearing a sari and unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt when he threw out his trash, watch him leaving late at night, hair untamed, to go hang out with, apparently, magicians, or maybe to see an obscure jazz show or to meet up with some conspicuously unnamed person at some fancy hotel bar in Manhattan. That Hampton was seventy—he seems forty—was just one more mystery to fit into my narrative of him.
Anyhow: he’s a character. And having him show up on the stage of my life helped me feel awake. Being separated from the habits of my old neighborhood had somehow broken me, to the point where my banal dreams—the one in which Dustin Hoffman had committed suicide, or another in which my refrigerator was full of Armenian string cheese—had more credibility, in their own watery way, than my waking life. In that sense I identified with Chase’s romantic confusion: he knows he is supposed to feel a great sense of loss and anxiety as his astronaut fiancée helplessly circles the globe, but he somehow can’t remember ever having really been with her. I was feeling that way about life in general.
Lethem is the master of giving reality to what we feel, and feeling to what, in reality, we tend to miss. There’s a great moment in the second half of Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, in which the actual reality that a character finally ends up in manages to match the emotional reality that has been building all along. The narrator, punished with a six-year cryogenic sleep, wakes up still haunted by the mystery he went to bed obsessed with, a mystery that feels as fresh to him as yesterday, while for those around him it’s a thing of the distant past. In here is another trope of Lethem’s magic. He violates the known rules of our world in order to make the known emotional realities somehow seem not so ridiculous, merely a normal response to the external. Lethem’s Girl in Landscape performs a similar trick with the natural emotional alienation of a fourteen-year-old girl. Of course our hero, Pella Marsh, feels strange and uncomfortable with her sexuality: she’s living on a distant planet populated by a hermaphroditic species known as Archbuilders, and the fate of civilization as she knows it is inextricably bound up in her own decisions. It’s as if you feel like Hamlet on the inside, and so Lethem builds an Elsinore castle around you so that you can see what that muck inside might really look like if it were manifested in stones. There’s something magnificent about the promise of there being places in heaven and earth beyond what Horatio has dreamt of; and the places are easier to believe in when they’re lit up for you by someone who tells of them with encouragement and anxiety both, with full knowledge that the original quote from Hamlet was one of menace. The world of ghosts and dreams and visions—it can get pretty hostile to human life, even as it sustains it.
Over the course of Chronic City, Perkus Tooth declines in health, retreats from society, and eventually abandons his apartment and all the cultural capital in it and moves in with a dog, Ava, who has her own apartment courtesy of a benefactor for homeless animals. (Lethem’s satiric and comic genius is gorgeously effortless and incidental.) Perkus, man of countless records and CDs, takes to listening to just one song, over and over, and it doesn’t even seem to be a very good song. Did I worry for him as much as I would have worried for a real-life person? Much more of course.
About this time in my reading of the novel, I went for pizza with Hampton. He wasn’t walking straight, which I thought might be a manifestation of his wavering choice of where to eat—Hampton doesn’t commit to times or places very easily—and I asked, and he said no, no, that wasn’t it, it was just that he had vertigo and had barely eaten for three days and had been told by the doctors that they didn’t know what was wrong. But Hampton decided it was the flu that was ruining his appetite. I noticed he had one of those little Band-Aids that get placed over blood-draw sites. I guess he really is seventy, I found myself thinking. Though I never quite believe it. But Hampton was anecdotic as ever, and he ate plenty of olive-and-mushroom pizza and so all seemed fine.
I fell asleep that night reading about the decline of Perkus. A few hours later I awoke in a panic. What if he’s dying? I thought, thinking half of Perkus and half of Hampton. What if the last vestige of romantic failure, of the true bohemian artist, is dying just the other side of my apartment wall? I haven’t even answered his last e-mail, I thought. I should send him an e-mail. I never send e-mails in the middle of the night, and in fact I’m not much good at sending e-mails at all, they’re rarely more than four lines long. But I sent Hampton a Hopkins poem, telling him why I thought he would like the poem, and I transcribed for him a passage from Kierkegaard about the knight of faith, who I decided was, essentially, him, and I think I also attached a photo of my dog. I didn’t express any actual emotion or concern directly, of course not, but I hoped the cultural clues to them were sufficiently scannable.
Were my love and concern more misdirected when going to Hampton as prompted by Perkus, or when going to Perkus (somewhat at the cost of all the world’s Hamptons), a fiction? Or is there a third side to the apparent binary code of these misdirected emotions? I can’t answer straight—I don’t know how to—but perhaps due to high doses of Lethem exposure, I’ve decided that Hitchcock has the answer. Vertigo, the classic film of doomed love and doubles, with Jimmy Stewart and the ever-resistant-to-his-charms Kim Novak, is a cited influence of Lethem’s. And here’s one way to think of the story. Jimmy Stewart falls in love with Kim Novak’s character, but while Kim Novak is pretending to be something other than she is, she eventually stages her own suicide. She returns to Jimmy Stewart later, as another woman, basically looking exactly the same except for now wearing a brunette wig. Why he can’t see through this simple guise is both a trope accepted as far back as Shakespeare and probably farther, and also a fact about the kind of blindness that happens when a person is transmuted, in the perceiver’s eyes, into an object of desire. Is Stewart’s character seeing his real love for the first time, through the manifestation of her absence? Is Hitchcock, through this misdirection, expressing, in the most poignantly clear weird way he can, his unrequited love for Kim Novak herself, whom maybe he is not even actually seeing, but seeing through to whomever and whatever she might seem to him to be? And here’s what’s so sad about the ending of that movie: he can’t have her, because he can’t get over his obsession with a previous love, also her.
I’d hate to plot-spoil a book that so admirably manages to have what so many novels these days lack: an ingenious plot. Let’s just say that there is more than one Cyrano de Bergerac–like love triangle. Chase is in love, maybe, with his astronaut fiancée, whom he can barely remember and so knows only through her letters home to him, while managing to overlook, but also not quite, the real—kind of real—hand which holds his fiancée’s pen. Perkus and Chase manage to be two points of a different love triangle that they can’t even see they’re on, and there are a handful of other such incidental triangles of misidentifications and ludicrously star-crossed lovers whose stars have been crossed only by themselves. The love structure is reminiscent of The Fortress of Solitude: Dylan has a homoerotic affair with his best friend, Mingus Rude, with the understanding that they themselves aren’t really involved, but, rather, that they—the friends—are stand-ins for the women they don’t yet have. And it’s kind of true, since all the women whom Dylan does have later seem to be little but pale stand-ins for the truer love of his original love, his best friend, Mingus.
But are these structures comic or tragic? Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night? Or one of those weird doesn’t-quite-fit-the-genre late plays like The Tempest, where all the world is, again, a stage—players strutting and fretting across the same stage invoked in Macbeth—but with the sense that this might be the essence of happily ever after. A clue to Lethem’s inevitably complicated feelings might lie in “Lucky Alan,” that Lethem story based on an anecdote from Hampton’s life. The action of the story serves as a tidy fable warning against making the world into a stage, but the action of writing the story seems to argue the opposite point, since the story itself makes a haunting, beautiful fiction out of reality. Such a structural tension is analogous to that oft-deployed anecdote about Niels Bohr: he and his friend hiked together up to Bohr’s mountain cabin. The friend, who’d never visited the cabin before, noticed a horseshoe over the door. The local superstition was that this talisman would protect a home from evil spirits. “I wouldn’t have thought a man of science like you would believe in such things,” the friend said. Bohr answered that of course he didn’t believe in such superstitions, but he’d heard the horseshoe worked even if you didn’t believe in it.
Which is a state of mind fundamental to Lethem’s aesthetic. Lethem—like Perkus with his unseen dramas of conspiracy—makes a theatrical piece out of this island city of ours that we think we know so intimately. This theatricalizing allows us, unlike Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, to actually see past the blinders of familiarity and desire for a moment. Our reality, well, flickers into existence, with the reassuringly real sound of an old film reel spooling. But the fictional reimagining of reality (and vice versa) fails to hold as a general principle, a reliable way to measure the “value” of a fiction. It can as often be precisely the origin of a fiction’s failure. Not just any reimagining will do, that’s the rub.
Chronic City itself is a good (moral veneer of the word intended) fiction; part of the magic trick of its goodness, however, is that it contains exacting satires of the kinds of fictions we find in our reality which aren’t good: War Free Editions of newspapers, the distracting-from-more-pressing-urban-problems melodrama of a beautiful fiancée astronaut lost in orbit, the theater of fear made of an enormous tiger conveniently destroying buildings that developers likely would be happy to see go anyhow—tidy fictions of news more than half written by money or crowd-think or raw power. A large part of Lethem’s virtuosity is in articulating these various fictions and following them out through time to watch what kinds of monsters, angels, and sui generis others they produce.
But is there any schema which at least points us in the right direction in evaluating the goodness of fiction? (Or should we just respect our allergy to assuming that moral and aesthetic value judgments can overlap? Didn’t we read Nabokov’s Lolita and feel confused and conflicted and decide to leave the whole question to another day, like maybe after we died?) Perhaps we can say that evil sneaks into the space made by the theatricalizing when the story becomes too fully believed in, by too many people. And when the doubting chorus gets cut from the script. A straightforward full-on claim to “realism”—another increasingly meaningless word—is probably too insistent a thing to be kind. It’s too sure of its own reality, and so blocks off the doors to the in-betweens. A fiction grows ugly when unquestioning faith makes it become wholly ontologically realized; with its newfound solidity the fiction-⤨transformed-to-fact begins bullying without regard to the delicate spirit of truth. Consider Don Quixote himself: early in his own novel, before his faith in knighthood begins to waver, he beats an innocent mule driver, in delusion, and leaves a fifteen-year-old shepherd to a master who will whip the poor bare-chested boy nearly to death.
Maybe (but only maybe, and if we’re in a certain mood) the most illuminating veil through which to look at Lethem’s work—more illuminating, anyhow, than a Stendhalian epigraph, or Hampton, or postmodernism, or “postmodernism,” or “the real”—is Augustine’s thinking on what it means to come to God. To be yourself is to submit yourself to something outside yourself—someone else’s words, or God, or the constraints of genre. It sounds like a paradox, but it also sounds suspiciously true. We may think we are most ourselves when we speak freely, when we evade form, but in fact that is usually when we are most expressive of just whatever pollen is in the air . . . or as Perkus or Adorno might propose, that is when we are most colonized by capital. On the other hand, when we rigidly bend to something outside ourselves, we find our real singularity. What happens is that in the space in between—the ways we don’t fit into the rigid other, those gaps—we find something true. Almost by accident. Another Perkus way to think of it is that one’s true self exists in the ellipsis. It’s a force field suspended between your reality and: God, or (if, as they say, it’s your religion) Literature.
So although Chase Insteadman is an actor who sometimes fears he’s therefore no one, there’s something very Chase-like about the person he pretends to be, and something Chase-like about the act of pretending itself. He says at one point: “I no longer act, unless you’d call my every waking moment a kind of performance.” But that paradox is him: he is most himself when playing a part, when he’s “not” himself. What is a paradox, really? It’s a nice smooth surface that seems to contain an impossible amount of chaos. As Chase would put it, that’s what Manhattan itself is: “To live in Manhattan is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interleave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes that pavement-demolishing workmen periodically wrench open to daylight and to our passing disturbed glances. We only pretend to live on something as orderly as a grid.” Which is a comic condition and a tragic one as well, like that of, say, Prospero, and the insubstantial pageant faded, another great island tale.
Let’s say I’m a ridiculous adherent of the contradictory and unformed religion of Lethem. What—to pull a Lethem misdirection—might this look like? Of all the crazy prophets of the world, my favorite is Shabbatai Tzvi. I think Lethem and Hampton and Perkus would like him, too. In short he claimed to be the Jewish Messiah but eventually converted to Islam, which made some label him an apostate but which didn’t shake the faith of his core followers, who still believed he was the King of the Jews. Among Shabbatai Tzvi’s prophecies was that the bride of the Messiah (him) would be an unchaste woman; she had been promised to him in a dream.
Far from all this, a Polish Jewish girl named Sarah was orphaned at age six. She spent ten years at a convent, then made it to Amsterdam and eventually to Livorno, where she worked, reportedly, as a prostitute. She knew, though, that she was to become the bride of the Messiah. The two heard word of one another. Sarah was brought to Cairo, and the two were married, and they kind of lived happily ever after, at least for a pretty long while. Sarah, who was beautiful and odd and charismatic, procured Tzvi many more followers. In love, between madness and the real, they reigned.
[1]* There are some non-orbiting women in the novel, too, all pretty smart and smartly pretty, their physical and other resemblances to the highly traded chaldrons well highlighted. But whenever anything of real import is being discussed, they tend to be in another room, or asleep on the sofa. I guess I was jealous, and wanted to hang out with the boys, but this is the wrong Lethem novel for that.
[2]* For instance, here’s a little doppelgänger riddle, relevantly lean:
Two hours into Rebecca, his very first Hollywood film, Hitchcock makes a cameo appearance, walking by a phone booth. In every single one of his subsequent thirty films, he makes similar fleeting appearances. People loved his cameos. So much so that Hitchcock had to move them up earlier and earlier, because the obsessive anticipation of them began to distract from the actual movie’s plot. What is it about those cameos that makes them feel like the most important mystery, the clue supreme to all other clues?
[3]* Here’s a real-life example of an in-between space. There’s a diner on the corner of Henry and Clark streets that I don’t believe in. My husband and I had just recently moved to Brooklyn—storied Brooklyn!—from Morningside Heights and I was miserable from newness, partly because I’d found no place to just sit and be, which is how I manage to get work done, and so my husband suggested that I try working at that diner.
What diner? I said, and he said, You know, that one at the intersection of Clark and Henry.
There’s no diner there, I said. I can picture that corner exactly. There’s that closed-down real estate office for the condo project on Henry that’s fallen through and there’s that horrible café with the oversize cupcakes and bright lights across from the subway station.
Yes, right between those places, my husband said.
There’s nothing there, I said.
Okay, he said, I’m pretty sure it’s there. (He really was hoping I’d find somewhere that would get me out of the apartment, because the lack of interacting with people had made me slip in my ability to tell the difference between what I had just dreamed and what had really happened. I spent a whole day, for instance, believing that Dustin Hoffman had committed suicide. I passed another day wondering why my husband had decided he wanted to move to Mexico.)
Later, we went for a walk, the diner probably on neither my mind nor my husband’s.
See, there, he said.
Oh, that place, I said, startled. Yeah.
The diner flickered into existence. But somehow, still, it’s like that place doesn’t exist for me. I don’t know why. It’s like I don’t believe in it, or it doesn’t believe in me. It’s a kind of in-between space. Or at least it held the promise of one, beckoning like a Lethem-y version of a green light across the water.
[4]* Though the more overwhelming origin story one might tell of Perkus Tooth is that he’s the avatar of the obscure and vaunted old rock critic Paul Nelson, a clue you can follow out if you want to, but Chronic City also contains the infiniteness of our reality within its finite space, so feel free just to walk past that red door.