Lethem Talks Chronic City With Criterion

On Film / Interviews — Oct 14, 2009

This week marks the publication of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, Chronic City, another captivating journey through mysterious New York with a host of peculiar characters (and a sci-fi twist), including a certain cinephile who finds his way into the offices of the Criterion Collection. Lethem, of course, is a film lover himself, and has worked with us in a number of capacities: as liner-note writer, interviewee, and Top 10 contributor. On the occasion of his new book—which GQ calls “stellar”—we wanted to ask him about his choice of settings, and some other things.—Liz Helfgott


We couldn’t help noticing that Chronic City opens in our old offices. How did that come about?

Well, of course it originates in my one and only real-life visit there. I’d just become acquainted with Sean Howe, the writer and editor, who at that time worked there. Sean had enlisted me to write a liner note for the 1946 The Killers—the Robert Siodmak/Burt Lancaster version—in a box set with the 1964 Don Siegel/Lee Marvin version, for which Geoffrey O’Brien wrote the notes. This completely thrilling assignment became an excuse for me to visit what I imagined as a great sanctum—remember, for longtime freelancers like me, Manhattan offices are mysterious places. And Criterion didn’t disappoint. I was ushered through and introduced to a great number of people whose names didn’t stick at the time but who have become friends subsequently, like Johanna and Issa and Peter, and got a glimpse of all sorts of fascinating piles of prospective material—a VHS tape of The T.A.M.I. Show!—and briefly watched someone digitally cleaning up I Am Curious—Yellow, laboriously erasing blots and glitches from the bodies of naked Swedish hippies, frame by frame.

One of the subject matters of the book is the strange, unknowable depths and complexities of Manhattan, the way you can never know, just walking down the street, what sort of rarified or exalted or horrific things might be going on in the buildings that make up those corridors of steel and stone and glass. Criterion seemed to me a perfect example of this unimaginable richness: a guild of cinema wonks, industriously slaving at these little cultural masterpieces on an innocuous and oblivious city block.

Incidentally, in the documentary about Slavoj Žižek—called Žižek!—the great wildcat philosopher is shown wandering through Kim’s Video, shopping, and when he finds that Siodmak-Siegel-Lancaster-Marvin-O’Brien-Lethem box set he exclaims: “This! This is what I was looking for!” Which is, in its way, the kind of peculiar fractal coincidence that my character Perkus Tooth would have seized on as a clue to the secrets of the universe.

Tell us a little about this Perkus Tooth, and what brings him to Criterion.

I find it hard to paraphrase Perkus—it took a long book for me even to draw a compass around his obsessions. But let’s just say he’s the kind of person I might be if, instead of publishing my stories, I ran around the Lower East Side pasting them on lampposts with brushes and glue pots, or if, after being invited up to the Criterion offices because I’d written a liner note, instead of politely going home (with my stash of fantastic freebies), I’d sort of moved in and begun pestering you guys while you tried to work. He’s a volatile, supersensitive, paranoid, prematurely washed-up, shadowy, vain, and impossible person, a kind of twitching nerve insufficiently covered in flesh. I love him, myself.

Ah, Perkus is a liner-note writer! And one, I gather, who shares some of your tastes in film. Is cinephilia a running thread through the book?

Yes, absolutely, though it’s cinephilia of a particularly paranoid-solipsistic bent. Perkus, though he’s rooted in fine tastes, has lately drifted into a manic pursuit of the Secret Masters of his private universe—he’s convinced they’re hiding from him between the frames of Marlon Brando’s late films, and Muppet movies, and Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Not exactly Janus material. He’s prone to sub-subtextual analysis, or maybe it should be called meta-textual analysis, something like what you see Žižek doing in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. I think it’s fair to say that not everything Perkus Tooth gets out of a film is necessarily something the director put in.

Was Žižek—also a Criterion liner-note writer, as it happens!—a model for Perkus?

Yes, I suppose he’s in there. I was reading a lot of Žižek, anyway, in the years I worked on the book, and I do love the skewed energy he brings to cinephilia. I actually had a great glancing encounter with Žižek: at a screening of that documentary about him, I brought along my friend Hampton Fancher, who wrote Blade Runner, and afterward was able to introduce them. Žižek seemed flabbergasted to meet Hampton. In the same vein, while I worked on the book I was reading Seymour Krim, and George Trow, and Camden Joy—and all those guys are in there somewhere as well. I suppose I have an appetite for the manic-subjective approach to cultural studies . . .

And to filmmaking as well, which is clear from the reason for your recent visit to our new office. But we won’t reveal that just yet . . . What are you reading and watching these days?

Well, I’ve got a young family, so I rarely get to a movie theater and spend a lot of time with My Neighbor Totoro and Harold and the Purple Crayon at the moment. But the great reading voyage of my summer was the complete collected stories of J. G. Ballard, which I’d agreed to write about and so decided to plunge into reading the entire thousand pages from front to back. I can’t recommend that experience highly enough—it was like doing a mind-meld with Ballard that lasted for weeks. A few recent enthusiasms on DVD: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Last Year at Marienbad, and the latest few Melville releases from you guys. And I’m about to plunge into Berlin Alexanderplatz, one of those experiences I’ve been anticipating having for decades. Did I mention that I like long artworks? Which reminds me, when are you guys going to do Rivette’s Out 1?

You can read the first chapter of Chronic City on the Wall Street Journal’s website, and, even more spectacularly, if you’re in New York, hear Lethem read the entire book himself in a marathon eight-night event. (In yet another cosmic coincidence, the book’s jacket design is by Criterion collaborator Rodrigo Corral!)