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The L: When you write are you approaching as a participant-observer or do you feel that you are an outsider looking in?
Lethem: Well, when it's going well, I feel like I'm a participant-observer. That's a great description of the ideal result. You live in fear of those days where you're an outsider looking in. When there's something you can't recapture or re-inhabit. For that reason I like to work very persistently. I'm not that fast a writer but the one rule I have per day is that I try to never stop, like the tortoise in the Tortoise and the Hare, I just keep writing every day. I make a total mental connection to the life of the book.
The L: Why Chronic City? Why did you want to write about a former child actor? How did you come up with the characters of Chase and Perkus?
Lethem: I'll take this backward. Well, I had Perkus before I had the rest of the book. The whole social milieu. He was a very emblematic character for me. You could say I've done characters like him before: cultural obsessives, and just plain obsessives, impractical types; and I've certainly done Bohemianism before. In a way it's where I come from. I write about characters who are artists or dissidents or who want to be part of a sub-culture. This book really came to life for me when I realized I had an urge to write about something I don't know very well and I'm not very comfortable with. I feel a lot of hostility toward it, the glamour and money that attaches to the upper stratum of Manhattan life these days—and suddenly Perkus was much more alive to me because I saw him against that backdrop. And Chase arrived almost simultaneously because I need one of those sensitive, close-observing but also shape-shifting types of narrators. He could bridge between Perkus's obsessive position and the place that Manhattan has become in this book. When you invent a narrator in a book he becomes interesting himself and becomes a subject. Chase's motives and his complicity in what was going on in the story almost became the main subject.
The L: What do you feel is the role of women in Chronic City?
Lethem: Well I'm very proud of Oona, who is maybe not a terribly likable character but she's one of the most interesting and complicated women I've ever written. Her voice makes me laugh a lot too. I think I made a character who's funnier than I am. In a way she's the only really strong woman in the book by its design. The greatest surprise in writing this book, the character I hadn't planned at all was Georgina. Given that all she was meant to do was be a walk on in the party scene, and then she ended up sticking and ending up as a foil and a kind of tonic to the masculine nature to the guys who hang out so often. She really moves me a lot. I find myself quite endeared to Georgina, and I haven't had a character announce themselves out of the backdrop and walk into the foreground of the book that way in quite a long time. She's meaningful to me. I wholly have to say it's fairly a boyish book. The male friendships take up a lot of the foreground. But I'm going to make up for that in my next book, which has a lot of strong mothers and daughters in it.
I miss the female characters when I don't have them around.
Jonathan Lethem's latest is a dizzying dive through multiple layers of Manhattan existence.
Nov 25, 2009