Things Are Not as They Seem, Nor Are They Otherwise

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem.  Doubleday.  467 pp.  $34.00

Chronic City is a book about all those little New York people who live in the city but you don’t know what they do.  You see them having coffee and a Danish at a diner at 3:00 in the afternoon (or the morning for that matter); you go to the movies for an early matinee and the theater is packed; you go to a reading by some obscure poet and it’s standing room only.  These people have read the poet; they know all about the movie.  (Once at a concert by Alfred Brendel—part of a series where he worked his way through all of Beethoven’s piano concerti—the man played an encore that my brother didn’t recognize.  That in itself is weird, because my brother is a world expert on classical music.  He turned and asked his wife what it was, and five people turned around and told him.)

If you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, as the expression goes, and the most talented people, the smartest people, the best looking people from all over the country go to New York, but not everyone makes it.  That doesn’t mean they leave.  New York, as my brother once said to me, is an addiction (he did finally kick it).  It has all these things you can’t find anywhere else.  You get used to them, and you’re hooked.

Perkus Tooth, the central character of Chronic City, is such a person.  (Where does Lethem get these names?  What’s the point of using them?  The narrator of Motherless Brooklyn—which I’m now rereading—is Lionel Essrog.  Really?)  It’s hard to say exactly what he does.  He is a kind of cultural critic, and autodidact, with a massive knowledge of arcane information about obscure movies, television shows, records.  For a while he achieved a certain fame by writing critiques on concert posters, posting them around the city.  He was like a graffiti artist.  But now, in middle age, it’s hard to say what he “does.”  He’s constantly, obsessively, busy.  But we don’t know how he makes a living.

We learn about Perkus through Chase Insteadman (another one of those names, but in this case I think it means you can always get him instead of someone else) a former childhood star from a much loved sitcom who is now not doing much, living on his residuals (the sitcom is always showing somewhere).  People recognize him on the street.  He’s also famous at the moment because his wife, an astronaut, is literally stranded in space; she went up to join Russians at the International Space Station, but the Chinese have planted some kind of air mines (like land mines) so they can never leave.  At least I think that’s the situation.  She’s stranded, one way or another.  She can communicate; her letters to her husband are printed in the New York Times, and people know him for that reason too.  They often commiserate with him.  He’s the guy who’s married to that poor astronaut.

So what do you do in New York when there’s nothing you have to do?  That’s the million dollar question.

If you’re Chase Insteadman, you hang out with Perkus Tooth.  He’s a perpetual monologist, for one thing; he can talk endlessly about his his obsessions, on which he is the world expert.  He’s got a video for you to watch, a record to listen to.  He lives on two drugs, black coffee, which he brews constantly, and marijuana, of which he has an unlimited supply.  Chronic, in fact, the Chronic of the title, is a kind of marijuana his dealer sells.  For other nourishment he goes to a nearby diner, where he gets a mammoth cheeseburger special with fries and a Coke.  If this sounds like the diet—and the life—of a perpetual adolescent, I think it is.  There are a bunch of people in New York who are like that weird kid in your college dorm, the one who woke up at 2:00 in the afternoon and had cigarettes and coffee for breakfast, hacking away all the while.  He was brilliant.  You always wondered what happened to him.

He went to New York and scored a rent-controlled apartment, like Perkus.

I don’t think Lethem is saying that all of New York is on drugs.  But the whole city is addicted.  If it’s not marijuana it’s video games, or apps on their phones.  People are working away, pursuing those addictions obsessively, because they’re afraid to wake up and look around.  They don’t concern themselves with larger truths.  They stay obsessed with non-questions like whether or not Marlon Brando is really dead.

Lethem is drawn to people who are—as he says in this book—“on the spectrum,” which I assume ranges from functional OCD to full blown autism.  Cicero Lookins is such a person in Dissident Gardens (one of those names again; maybe that’s what the name signifies); Lionel in Motherless Brooklyn has Tourette’s, which he seems to regard as just a virulent form of OCD; and Perkus, so far in Lethem’s oeuvre is at the top of the heap.  He uses marijuana and coffee—we discover eventually—to stave off cluster headaches, and he uses the obsessive activity to stave off the anxiety of living.  He’s just doing what the whole city is doing.

Perkus’ circle includes not just Chase, but also Oona Laszlo, a talented writer who lives as a ghostwriter, working as obsessively as anyone else, and Richard Abneg, a former social activist who now works for the city’s billionaire mayor (we know who that is, whatever name he’s given here).  Richard has seduced a society woman who lives off her vast wealth (that’s another group of people in the background of the novel, the titled rich, who regard Chase as a kind of pet poodle), and winds up conducting a long term romance with her.  All of these people are likely to show up at Perkus’ tiny apartment, or meet him at the diner for a megaburger.

There is a moment about a third of the way into the novel when this weird cluster of people becomes obsessed with bidding for something called chaldrons on e-bay.  A chaldron is a beautiful vase of some kind; for all I know the whole world bids on chaldrons and I haven’t noticed.  In any case, at one point, they become obsessed with this activity, but because Perkus has such a decrepit computer and a terrible connection, also because some wealthy person comes in and takes over the bidding at the last minute, they never succeed in buying one.  They keep trying this thing that never works.  It’s like a model of addiction: this will never satisfy you, but you keep doing it.  It was at that point that I almost abandoned the novel.  I couldn’t bear to read about such trivial lives.

I’m glad I didn’t.  Dissident Gardens gave me confidence in this author, after I almost abandoned it.  Lethem is as aware as anyone what kind of life he is portraying.  And isn’t the truth of the matter that we’re all “on the spectrum,” we’re all engaged in activities that are ultimately futile (Cervantes wrote a novel with a similar theme), we’re all using activities to stave off our ultimate terror about life?  Bidding on chaldrons or selling life insurance, what’s the difference?  If Perkus is somehow convinced that Marlon Brando is still alive, if that’s the one illusion he can’t give up if he wants to go on living, don’t we all have such things that we believe?  Perkus Tooth, c’est moi.

In any case, in the middle of the novel something happens that turns Perkus’ world absolutely upside down.  In addition to his theories about everything else, he had a paranoid conspiracy theory that the world wasn’t as it seems, people were out to get him and everyone else, and what happens seems a confirmation of those theories.  No more apartment, no more cheeseburgers, no more coffee, no more marijuana.  He also sees into the illusory nature of everything.  It’s like an enlightenment experience, though not in a good way.  The courage with which he faces all that, and soldiers on in the face of total defeat, is something to behold.  I began the novel not believing in Perkus Tooth or the whole world he inhabited.  I ended by loving the man, seeing him as every bit as real as the people I’ll see at the Y this afternoon.

Lethem has written a major work about illusion and reality, and there’s probably plenty here—especially about the political realities of New York—that I didn’t understand, and that would scare me even more if I did.  I got the emotional import—which transcends the city he was writing about—and it hit me with a wallop.  New York is a city not just of those who make it, but also of those who fail.  We all ultimately fail.  It’s the way we face our failure that makes us human.  No one goes down the tubes more bravely than a weird little guy from Indiana named Perkus Tooth.