Keeping it Simple With Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem‘s forthcoming novel, Chronic City, appears to be a return to sensibilities of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude—dense characterizations matched to a strong sense of New York’s history. According to the promotional patter on Random House’s Web site, the story focuses on Chase Insteadman and “Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning.” As Lethem told Comic Book Resources last July:

[I]t’s set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.

So far so good—or at least, not You Don’t Love Me Yet, his clunky, thin 2007 novel about an LA rock band. In the latest issue of Stop Smiling magazine (packed with interviews with, among others, Roberto Bolano, Alex Ross, Paul Auster, and Junot Diaz), Lethem registers an unusual defense of that novel:

I was ready to throw off any sense that I was going to write sprawling social novels set in Brooklyn and become the Brooklyn Faulkner. Neither Motherless nor Fortress exactly fits that description, but the accumulated image of the two books seemed to project that.

I don’t know if it would have been easy or hard for someone else to follow through with it, but it was totally out of the question for me. And really, for anyone who had even glanced at the earlier work that’d be obvious. But there were a lot of people—an important critical framework—which had never glanced at the earlier work. YDLMY was a way to shrug that off with a degree of self-destructive glee, to say I’m going to disappoint people on a number of different levels so we can start over again about expectations.

Is it overly reductionist to summarize this as, “I purposefully wrote a crummy novel so critics wouldn’t expect too much from me?” Either Lethem was overthinking his reputation or thinking too little about readers; in any event, it seems like he wasted too much energy being concerned about critics.

On a related note (at least in terms of avoiding big, ambitious novels), Lethem is going to spend the month of April running a Twitter feed for Brooklyn Museum as part of an ongoing series where artists commandeer a Twitter handle operated by the museum (@1stfans). Lethem explains what he’s planning on the museum’s blog:

I’ve finished a novel, to be published in October, called Chronic City, in which the object in question is called a “chaldron.” During the years of this book’s writing I found myself by chance repeatedly drawn into collaborations with a series of other artists or art-presenters (see: Jennifer Palladino, Matthew Ritchie, and THE THING) and in each case I used it to further the foolish postulate that “chaldrons” were a part of the world outside the novel, an error shared by my book’s characters. On the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed you’ll overhear tweets from a group of deluded aspirants to chaldron-ownership, as they debate strategies for winning a chaldron in an on-line auction.

You’ll likely have to pay for the privilege of reading Lethem’s Tweets: The feed is locked, a premium of joining the museum’s 1stfans “socially networked museum membership.”

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