Novelist Jonathan Lethem

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Fred Benenson

Chronic City author Jonathan Lethem

Following a side trip to Los Angeles indie-rock land in You Don't Love Me Yet, novelist Jonathan Lethem returns to the territory that has proved particularly fruitful for him this past decade — his home town of New York City. Yet, unlike Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, his latest, Chronic City, is set across the East River, in a Manhattan just a few degrees askew from reality. Lethem spoke to TIME about the American obsession with its own pop culture and why book readings are typically a snore.

There are many surreal elements in Chronic City: a mysterious fog, snow in the summer, a giant tiger. Is there something about Manhattan that makes it an unreal place in your mind?
It's both real and unreal. The pressure of money and ambition and the forces of aspiration and yearning that make up that island also make it into kind of a virtual reality. There's something about Manhattan that's half a concept. People are living inside this concept as much as inside the real territory. But it is also real, and I wanted to capture the texture and the material sense of it — what it is to be on the streets and what it is to enter someone's apartment.

You were born in Manhattan, but have mostly lived in other parts of New York City. When you were younger, what popped into your head when you thought of Manhattan?
Any New York City native has a complicated relationship with Manhattan because it's the place that everyone's aspiring to get to. Even in Brooklyn or Queens you can have that feeling. And yet you also feel a sense of possession. It belongs to you; you're a New Yorker, you're entitled to it, but disenfranchised from it at the same time. I loved Manhattan in a very traditional Saturday Night Fever type of way. I just wanted to get there. And I did, for high school. I applied to this special arts high school and started taking the subway every day and suddenly Manhattan was mine.

But I guess, as a Brooklyn-ite, I'm predisposed to see the things that are being lost in the equation, lost in the constant glamorous renovation and the veneer of new money that's always being laid over the top of things in Manhattan. There's this constant adjacency of the present and the past. The past doesn't go away just because the present arrives. It just moves over one step.

The book does have that air of money around it, around its Bloombergesque mayor and around several of its characters. Given the state of the economy, though, does it reflect a time that has passed?
I hope the book floats in time a little bit. It was certainly meant to. It doesn't even mention a year. But the money never goes away. I mean, the restaurants and bars are full in Manhattan. It can sometimes seem almost like zombie money — it just goes on doing what it did even though it's not alive anymore.

One of your main characters, Perkus Tooth, is this oddball recluse, a pop-culture savant obsessed with Marlon Brando and cult movies. What is it about American pop culture that makes it so easy for us to become obsessed with it?
I guess for me, it stands in for the information surrounding us that we're trying to make sense of, including our own behavior, our own culture, other people's lives. With people like Perkus — the most exaggerated collectors or self-appointed experts — there's a poignancy to it. I love that kind of behavior, and I guess I'm guilty of it myself at times. It's the human condition taken to one very absurd extreme, like someone finding a dusty old VHS tape of a Steve Martin comedy from the '80s and deciding, "There's the answer, it's inside that. If I just penetrate this artifact, I'll finally get what I need."

Are other nations as obsessed with their own pop-culture refuse as we are?
I don't know. I think it may be an American curse in some ways. I'm just going to talk through my hat because I have no actual information for you, but maybe it's our relative lack of deep history that might curse us to this quest. We're a slightly amnesiac country. We were invented out of whole cloth fairly recently, and we're very dedicated to not looking at the past and very pointed to the future. America is kind of a science fiction novel in a way. Very weak on character and backstory, but very strong in concept and dynamism and cool ideas.

You're doing a marathon reading of your book — eight nights, seven venues, over the next two months. Is it even worth it these days for authors to do readings unless they're going to be unique or kooky in some way? Readings are usually ... deadly.
It can be kind of a strange ritual. I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm permanently in a kind of moderately bad faith as a giver of readings, because I'm not a great fan of them. I don't think of that as a hot night out. So I usually try to make it something a little more special. Although this marathon in some ways is kind of a selfish thing. I hope it's terrific for other people, but it really was another way of getting out of the robotic loop of just reading the same chapter over and over again. I wanted to make the readings mean a little more.

Is it true you own a bookstore?
Yeah. I'm part proprietor of a small used-book store in Maine. I don't really own the building. I guess I sort of own the books until someone comes along and buys them. I'm like the junior partner in a very funky clubhouse of a used-book store. It's something that makes me very happy.

It seems like a defiantly optimistic thing to do these days, when all anyone can talk about is the decline of the printed form.
It seems like it should be that kind of gesture, but it never crossed my mind that it was an expression of defiance. If it's taken as that, that's great. I did it for the pleasure. It didn't have to do anything with my career or the Internet or the publishing world. It was just to be handling the books. I worked in used-book stores for 15 years on and off. That was the only work I ever had before becoming a full-time writer. I have a lot of osmotic book knowledge just from handling books I didn't ever read. Turning them over in my hands, trying to figure out where they came from and why they exist and whether they should be priced at $4 or $6.

How do you figure out how to price a used book?
I'm supposed to say something like, "If I told you, I'd have to kill you." It can't be explained. You just have to know.