The Manhattan Project

Photo: Andrea Modica

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is, like most of his novels, a bubbling stew of references: the Rolling Stones, Robert Smithson, Marlon Brando, Franz Kafka, and (as ever) Philip K. Dick. But the artist he brings up in discussing where he is now—still living in Brooklyn but over it, aesthetically, and still smarting slightly from his last novel’s tepid reception—is Woody Allen.

Allen took his movie machine to London, and never heard the end of it (even if it was widely seen as a boon for his films). On the phone from his summer home in Maine, Lethem regrets joking to readers that his last novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, was set in California because he was sick of his hometown. “I think people took it as though I was dishonoring Brooklyn or ignoring my best resources as a writer,” he says. For his encore, as it happens, Lethem is encroaching upon Allen’s territory: Chronic City, whose working title was Manhattan, and which Lethem describes as a cross between the famous borough-centric New Yorker cartoon and “the darkest Seinfeld episode ever,” takes place entirely on the Upper East Side.

Lethem writes 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.” The passage reflects the novel’s frequently perfect pitch but not its ultimate tone, which verges on apocalyptic. In the book, former child star Chase Insteadman befriends Perkus Tooth, a rock writer gone to seed and one of the rent-controlled sleeper cells still inhabiting the area. “In a way there’s an old bohemianism still clinging to some existence,” says Lethem, the son of old-Brooklyn bohemians. “That’s the Upper East Side I spent time in growing up. ”

But if this is “Manhattan as a kind of snow globe,” in Lethem’s words, it’s also a strangely literalized sci-fi landscape. For one thing, it really does snow constantly—through July. The destruction of old buildings to make way for condos is often the work of a (possibly mechanical) giant tiger on the loose. In lieu of 9/11 (or perhaps covering up its devastating evidence), a thick fog has come to envelop the financial district. There is—again, literally—no evidence of a world outside Manhattan. But the creepiest part of this dystopian fantasy is how many of its elements—a billionaire mayor, a sweet smell invading the city, a perpetually delayed subway project—already exist.

Lethem has often sought to interweave the realistic and the fantastic; in Chronic City the result is nearly seamless. “I put both pedals to the floor at the same time, which is my signature and maybe my folly,” he says. He might disagree with critics who declared his last novel a folly (though “I really have to take people’s word for it at a certain point that it was a disappointment”), but he does acknowledge that Chronic City is different. Lethem aspires to an “artifactual quality” in his work, which is his way of saying that, like those cultural icons he’s forever throwing into his pot, he’d like to leave something unique to posterity. “I always think, Do the thing that only I can do. And I don’t mean this in any boastful sense, but as a simple descriptive word: It’s the most unprecedented work I’ve ever done.”

Chronic City
By Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday Oct. 13

The Manhattan Project