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Jonathan Lethem talks to Jacket Copy about pot, virtual worlds and 'Chronic City'

October 26, 2009 |  7:55 am
Jonathanlethem_2009

Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of "The Fortress of Solitude" and "Motherless Brooklyn," comes to the L.A. Central Library on Tuesday night -- although there are no more tickets available, last-minute seats often open up at the ALOUD series. He'll be reading from and discussing his new novel, "Chronic City" which our reviewer described this way:

As "Chronic City" opens, Chase [Insteadman] visits the office of the Criterion Collection to record a DVD voice-over. There, he meets Perkus Tooth, a frantic, ageless scribbler in the spirit of Joe Gould. Perkus, who invades Criterion to write DVD liner notes on spec, is an avid collector of the esoteric cult item. In a rent-controlled Upper East Side apartment he shares with pot smoke and coffee grounds, he tries to gather "ellipsistic knowledge," reconstructing epiphanies through forgotten jazz records and dubbed VHS tapes, attempting to prove that "the horizon of everyday life was a mass daydream -- below it lay everything that mattered."...

Some of Perkus' stoned paranoiac revelations are mind-expanding, while others taper off into a deserved oblivion. But it's hard to remain unsusceptible to his euphoria, especially when he spouts brilliant mini-essays such as one calling Brando "the living avatar of the unexpressed, a human enunciation of the remaining hopes for our murdered era."

Lethem told Jacket Copy more about Brando, about characters who smoke a lot of pot, Los Angeles, a marathon New York City reading and how much "Chronic City" can contain.

Jacket Copy: Your last novel, “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” was set in Los Angeles. Did you spend any time out here when you were working on it?

Jonathan Lethem:
Oh yeah, definitely. It was a period when I was traveling there, sporadically, a lot. A couple of different times I spent a month or six weeks. I like L.A., I’m very interested in it. I have, also, some kind of typical New York resistance to it. But I’m not 100% naive about California – I lived in the Bay Area for about 10 years. In a weird way, have two different layers of not being from L.A. As you know, the whole Bay Area-LA split is very strong too, in a different way. I’ve always been very interested in L.A., and I was writing about it out of a real affection in that book.

JC: You've said that you like surprising yourself as a writer, that "You Don't Love Me Yet" set up different challenges for you. Did you find new opportunities working on "Chronic City"?

JL:
I'm immensely proud of this book, and I would say that it was a deliberate and controlled book for me. I really felt like, once I created the voice, I was writing something very strong in my work, that I'd worked towards for a long time. But there were also things that were completely new to me. A novel is too extensive an artifact to all be planned. You have to be improvising, and you have to surprise yourself. I prefer it that way -- it gives the thing more life. Those fugue sections, where Chase looks out the window and thinks about the birds and the tower – that was a surprise to me. I thought I was going to write a book that was all velocity, kind of like 'Motherless Brooklyn Part Two,' just Perkus running amok. Then Chase deepened for me, and that was very very rewarding. Those points where the book stops the velocity, and he just is experiencing, abiding with the strange juncture he's come to in his life. Those are very meaningful to me, and I might almost say they're my favorite parts of the book.

JC: In "Chronic City," Perkus becomes something of a mentor to Chase Insteadman.

JL:
When he meets Chase, he wants to bring him up to speed on stuff. That part of him is very strongly connected to a relationship that was very important in my life, with a slightly tragic but also very wonderful, reclusive music writer named Paul Nelson who I made friends with in my 20s.  Paul – he didn't resemble Perkus in his manic energies, and he wasn't a pothead and he wasn't a dandy – he was Perkus' opposite in lots of ways.

I was quite naive about certain parts of culture and Paul educated me all in a hurry. He made sure I understood that I had to learn about Howard Hawks and Ross McDonald and Chet Baker and a whole lot of other stuff. He opened a lot of doors for me, and that part of Perkus is a bit of a portrait of what it was like to sit at Paul's feet.

JC: I think one of the pleasures of reading your book is that experience of being culturally curated by the mind of Perkus Tooth. I wonder if that hands-on mentorship is something that is a little bit lost to this next generation, which has this vast electronic cultural curator.

JL:
It is really different. You used to have to really excavate the past of American popular culture. It wasn't like there was this gigantic repository at your fingertips. When Paul Nelson wanted me to understand what was so important about an old black and white movie, like "Only Angels Have Wings" by Howard Hawks, he would dig out these VHS tapes he'd dubbed off the "Million Dollar Movie" or PBS, they'd have the commercials intact -- it was this rare essence.

There wasn't a Criterion Collection, and there wasn't an Internet, so most things just vanished. Most people that held onto them, it was some esoteric pursuit to keep things alive. If you ran across a back issue of some old zine – it wasn't like blogs, where they all just sit there forever – you'd find some fading mimeographed zine and it would be a window, a portal into some lost moment of popular culture.

JC: You wrote a 2005 piece that ran in the Washington Post, about Perkus Tooth, who then didn't exist.

JL:
That piece is a little sleight-of-hand. I was really writing about Mingus Root, from "Fortress of Solitude," and about having created a character that some people I knew identified with so strongly, and rightly – they were right to do it. Sometimes nonfiction is boring, and I sometimes respond to opportunities to write essays by writing slightly fictionalized versions of essays instead. By using the name of a character that nobody had actually encountered yet, I was turning that piece into a short story about a writer writing an essay about writing about a character. It made it more of a living piece for me.

JC: At the time, did Perkus Tooth just vaguely rhyme with Mingus Root? Was he a character you'd already begun to construct? 

JL
: He's been a character that's been coming for me for a long time. He existed in my mind for a long while before I had a book that could be a container for him. I had a lot of suspicions that he would get a large place in a book of his own, and in a flash in 2004, it was, I began to realize that I had this Upper East Side Manhattan book in me. I could see this version of the city that I wanted to write about, and I realized that was going to be Perkus' home.

JC: Perkus' obsessions are so pot-fueled.

JL:
I guess some people feel that they can't see through all that haze. It's really just a life habit. I think I say in the first chapter that it's as much cups of coffee as it is pot. I've known people, and gone through times in my life, when smoking pot wasn't a remarkable choice, it was just daily fuel, fuel for conversation. I was in some ways trying to treat it as casually as that, but it's not as common as it used to be.

JC: In some ways, you're working with layers of reality like Philip K. Dick did, and the pot sort of enable that, an adjustment off what is immediately perceived or regular. But do you think it's hard for people to take literature seriously when it includes drug-taking?

JL:
There's a certain amount of middle-class culture that's very anxious about signifiers of seriousness in general. It's not something that's very personal to my book or me, in any particular way. It's the same kind of pushback that the people who wrote about rock 'n' roll seriously in the '60s encountered. Because it was as though they weren't supposed to write about that, as though that stuff wasn't culture, it was beneath consideration. I think people who portray the life of American vernacular culture – I've been that person, when I wrote about graffiti or rap in "Fortress of Solitude," and I guess in a funny way, I've stumbled into that situation in what you're proposing – but it's not very important. That resistance is not a very deep response to what I've done, or what anyone's doing. It's just a habit of reaction: Oh, this can't be serious because it's about unserious people, or unserious things. But that's not a very striking thing to even worry about.

JC: It's clear, because so much of the narrative is told from Chase's perspective, what Chase gets out of his friendship with Perkus. But what does Perkus get from Chase?

JL:
First of all, Chase is attractive – there's this sense in which anyone wants to be around him, in the most common denominator, human way. There are those people. I think Perkus has his own very strange ways of being motivated and compelled by Chase – he's flabbergasted and entranced by the idea of this unanchored, floating-through-life – it's the life that Perkus could never even dream of obtaining for himself. And since he believes that the world is treacherously corrupt – although he can't pinpoint exactly how – the idea that someone can be so benign and float through such treachery is very alluring and fascinating. Also, if you read the first couple of chapters carefully, you cans see that Perkus, who believes himself a kind of detective, regards Chase as a kind of suspect. He's thinking that maybe this guy is much more than he seems, much more deeply implicated or much more deeply aware of what Perkus regards as the true nature of reality. So he's keeping an eye on him; he wants to know what he's made of. Also – he needs listeners. Not everyone sticks around. Let's not underestimate Perkus' neediness either. All of those together, which contradict each other but that can be true in our relationships – we can have contradictory motives that pile up in the same direction. 

JC: The idea of the book being very dense and controlled, that comes across. How do you write, and what's your editing process like?

JL:
Writing every day is my only important form of – I always hate the word "discipline," I try to get around it. "Habituation" is much more how it feels to me. I love to dwell in the space of a novel -- I don't find writing uncomfortable, it's something I really love doing. Writing a long novel, especially, it means that I'm creating this whole other set of people that I'm interested in, and this whole other world I get to go into, and I try to stay there. I try to go every day, not just to see the word count amass, which is helpful, but because then my subconscious is kind of living there. If I write every day, even if it's just a tiny bit – sometimes it will be just a tiny bit, I'll work for 45 minutes and just check in with it – then I never stop, I'm always immersed. That seems to me to be the best way to do things. Then your unconscious process begins collecting happy accidents, everything seems to be relevant to what you're working on, because your brain is just harvesting language and incidents and images on its own. There was one period at the peak with "Chronic City" where I worked on this book without missing a day for over seven months. I always feel very smug about those kind of runs when I get on them. I'm not that fast a writer, so I have to be there every day to write a long book quickly at all. I don't count words or pages. If I get a great paragraph, or I get two pages – two pages is a great day. I think of that as a real success. But I try not to trouble myself if I don't do so much – as long as I'm working, I'm satisfied.

JC: It seems like you're making references to real life on the sly that sort of push past the frame of the book. At one point Perkus gets upset, and mid-rant he asks what happened to his friends -- he has a list of names that I'm pretty sure are real people.

JL:
[laughs] Yeah, you're the first person to kind of poke at that. It's almost a running joke I had with myself. In this book, I didn't want there to have to be an acknowledgment, or there to be any epigraphs. The quotes that would ordinarily be epigraphs, or at the front of the chapters, like the James Baldwin quote – I wanted everything to be inside the book. I wanted it to be a container that could hold anything I wanted. There was some point at which I needed to name some friends for Perkus, and it served this marvelous double-purpose to tip my hat to a couple of people whose names, in some emotional way, belonged in the book. That more ordinarily would have been mentioned in an acknowledgments page that no one would read. But I decided I would go ahead and put them into the actual text.

JC: That's interesting, the thing that made me think the book was exploding outward, you stuck it in there so it could be fully contained.

JL:
I think of the book as being like a kind of gigantic virtual reality, something self-enclosing and artificial, but that points to the real world every way it possibly can. Maybe it's like the whole of the Internet – I'm not trying to make a grandiose comparison for my novel. But I was thinking so much about Manhattan as a kind of virtual space, and popular culture as a gigantic diorama of ideas and responses – it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

I wouldn't say that it's a game that necessarily has to matter to anyone but me, but I was very excited -- in a way I stumbled into this. In "Fortress of Solitude," I need to write about the real history of popular music, the real history of soul and funk in the '60s and '70s. But I also need to pry it open, pry open a space in that real history and make room for my singer. I had to move Marvin Gaye two inches this way, and move the lead singer of the Temptations over this way about three inches, so there would be this vacancy where I could insert my fictional guy. That was necessity, but I became fascinated with the resulting texture in fiction that you get when you are splicing so intricately real and invented cultural stuff together. In "Chronic City," I was doing that not out of necessity but pleasure – this is a kind of fictional world-making that's really gotten transfixing for me, and I want to do tons of it, so there's a lot of microsurgery on that level, of what's real and what's fake.

JC: Because "Chronic City" is very layered and elliptical, I was wondering what section you might pull out for a reading. But I see you're doing a marathon reading of the book in NY, front to back, over multiple nights and several weeks.

JL
: So far, the two times that I've read it outside of this marathon, I've just read the first chapter, which plays very well and spares me the anxiety of needing to set up a lot of stuff. I think it’s a lovely introduction to Chase and Perkus, who are the heart of the book, their friendship.

The marathon thing came up – it started with reading my audiobook. I was invited to be the actor for the audiobook of "You Don't Love Me Yet." It was the first time I had ever done that – I sat in a recording studio and read all of that book aloud in a two-day shot. It was really an unusual experience. I'd never read one of my own novels cover to cover. I felt like I learned all this stuff about the way it worked, a couple of places I thought it flattened out more than I would have liked. Of course it was too late, it was already in galleys and I wasn't going to make any major changes. It meant that I promised myself that with the next novel that I would find some way to read the entirety of it aloud while it still could be reworked.

I did that last winter in a small town in Maine in January in this little snowbound village where people were really bored so they were very willing to sit and listen to me. I did it in eight nights over 10 or 12 days, it was a real marathon there-- in this tiny little library in Maine.

It was what I hoped as an editorial experience. Trying to put the whole thing across out loud is very very instructive, and I did learn a lot of things that I wanted to know, and it affected the editing of "Chronic City" strongly. But it was unexpectedly also a kind of deep human experience, gathering these folks together and doing this thing. It became this very intimate time we spent – it made me yearn for that, some of that feeling, anyway, to be imparted to what can sometimes with book touring be a slightly mechanical procedure.

I thought, let me see if I can read the whole book to people in New York – I usually end up doing six or seven or eight events in New York. Let's turn it into another front-to-back reading and see if I can instill some of that more human feeling into the whole experience. It's been pretty rewarding so far, but I'm way behind, I'm just absolutely in the hole. The last night is designed to be a catch-all – the bookstore is a very friendly local shop that is going to indulge me. We'll bring in pizza and bottles of wine, and I've got some actors that will come in and read parts of it for me when my voice flags.

JC: Because Chase is a former actor, was there anybody in your head who stood in his place?

JL:
I'm very naïve about contemporary culture; often my points of reference are weirdly antique. I was always fascinated with the stars like Natalie Wood or Elizabeth Taylor – or Dean Stockwell, who was a child actor, or Roddy McDowell. Also, Michael J. Fox, or the Doogie Howser guy.

I wouldn't want to claim that Chase was secretly actually a really good actor, but I was thinking about – you know, Marlon Brando is in the book too, in a way. And I was thinking about the dilemma of the actor who is inside a script that's oppressive, or degrading -- and how do you resist that, how do you work against it. In a way, that was Brando's life story – the script of being Marlon Brando was not one he finally wanted to play out. So he started resisting it from within. Not to get too pat, but that's almost the thematic heart of the book – if contemporary life is like a bad script that's very difficult to get to the outside of, you're permanently cast in contemporary reality, can you express your resistance in the way you play the role? Can you express your integrity or your suspicious, can you abstain from within the role – or is the script too strong, are you just stuck? That's not just an actor's problem – it's life.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jonathan Lethem reads from "Chronic City" at the 2009 New Yorker Festival. Credit: Amy Sussman / Getty Images for The New Yorker

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