City Mouse, Country Mouse

Discussed Herein: Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem and Amateur Barbarians by Robert Cohen

“My Birds…, My Tower…”

“Frank O’Hara and Joe Brainerd, Mailer and Broyard and Krim, Jane Jacobs, Lenny Bruce, Warhol and Lou Reed, all of it, including Patti Smith and Richard Hell and Jim Carroll, poets declaring themselves rock stars before they even had songs, Jean-Michel Basquiat writing SAMO, Philippe Petit crossing that impossible distance of sky between the towers, now unseen for so many months behind the gray fog.”

– one-time rock critic Perkus Tooth’s list of influences and heroes

“So, I’m Perkus Tooth,” is how the screed-prone, chronically ill, chronically high, and yet curiously pure protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel introduces himself to the powers that be — as if in resumption of a previously ongoing conversation. Perkus’s talent, observes Chronic City’s narrator, the pleasant-on-the-eyes and quite nearly harmless Chase Insteadman, is for ellipsis, netted flutterings of meaning that oh-so-evocatively suggest an apprenhension taken from the sheer angles of Manhattan’s coldly shining architecture, its personalities, its towers. To deliver his message, Perkus must brave dangers from within (migraines, hiccups) and without (a tiger on the prowl). That’s not to mention his circle of friends.

Whether the narrative spotlight happens to fall in a particular instant on Perkus (recovering rock critic), or Chase (TV actor), or Richard Abneg (former tenant’s rights advocate, now instrument of the effort to leech upscale pads from units intended for affordable housing), or Oona Laszlo (ghostwriter extraordinaire, one time protégé of Perkus), or Georgina Hawkmanaji “The Hawkman” (Armenian heiress and close companion of Abneg’s), or Strabo Blandiana (Romanian acupuncturist), or Mayor Arnheim (Michael Bloomberg), or Sadie Zapping (ex-rocker turned dog walker), those who populate Chronic City abide: they have always been around and always plan to be, plot contrivances be damned; they are each bigger than the story in which they take part. So, Lethem’s novel proceeds, seemingly in sway with the whimsical, or habitual, directions of his characters’ days, while slyly advancing a narrative in subtext, one that emerges by degrees from the “amnesiac mists” of Perkus, Chase, Richard, and the Hawkman’s fellowship. Or the partially glimpsed epiphanies of Perkus’s “broadsides,” manifestos put to poster and pasted on lampposts. Or else the gray fog at the island’s southern tip.

Lethem has been quoted referring to his novel as “a bromance”; only, when he uses the word it seems somehow to quiver in meaning between irony and earnestness. Finally, though, such categories of classification must blur as well, since, surely, one who feels “a bromance” in earnest cannot himself accept such a buzzword in place of meaning. It is a liquid living thing, this connection, something alive.

Chronic City is alive. For Perkus, Chase wants nothing more than that he “have his ellipsis, have it wholly and unreservedly… without cluster [headaches] — however terribly much I suspect that one might be the price of the other.” And, yes, while he longs for his friend Perkus to realize the best, the childhood TV star grown to some facsimile of adulthood won’t hesitate from enjoying the pleasures of the physical realm, a warm body in his bed, while he remains, in public, “outstanding only in [his] essential politeness,” a “prisoner of [his] plate’s arrival, roast brown glistening something.” In outer space, the true love of Chase’s life, astronaut Janice Trumbull, orbits, while below Perkus Tooth, averse to the containment of romantic “pair-bonding,” fires off his broadsides, each “an arrow aimed into the infinite obsessive.” As must the aspiring novelist, Perkus culls choice elements from the chaos of the universe to braid together. In a novel that skirts plotlessness, he is the puttering, beleaguered plotter, the little engine that could. From the mediated peaks he dreams of setting loose a flood that will once and for all wash away the eye-liner from the city’s imperial visage.

Says Oona, who shares Chase’s bed in fits (“I’m your whatever,” she tells him), on the subject of a virtual online “reality” that seems to be bleeding into the actual lives of their trusted circle of Manhattanites: “There might be trillions of these simulations going on at once.” Asks Chase, “Why couldn’t we be the original?” “We could be,” Oona replies. “But the odds aren’t good. You wouldn’t want to bet on it.”

Whatever their provenance, Perkus’s obsessions cluster together like paragraphs on a page, while in tow to his pleasure, Chase looks on, unable in his own life to find any certain connection between the church tower outside his window and the birds who eternally circle it. The final line of Lethem’s acknowledgment in the back of the book runs, “Everything else to everywhere else forever and ever amen.” A rock critic’s benediction, if ever there was one.

The Terrible Fate of Becoming Yourself

“Hey, show a little class. You’d think someone getting laid as much as you are would spend a little less time feeling sorry for himself. But it works for you, doesn’t it, Oren? It gets you off the hook?”

– Gail Hastings to Oren Pierce

It takes no real insight to assert that Robert Cohen’s Amateur Barbarians has received considerably less attention than other current releases: for example, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, with which it has nothing in common, save for a middle-aged (and intrepid) protagonist. Somehow, though, Amateur Barbarians has fallen under the banner of “middle-age” in subject matter, a topic about as seductive as toe-nail clippings, suggesting, as it does, the burden of responsibility and allegiances forged, concessions made to the inevitable flow of time, the specter of senescence (for the lucky few), a thinning hairline, Nick Carraway & Cialis, so on and so forth. In the popular realm, middle-age is nearly synonymous with the phrase “so on and so forth,” because everyone knows that everything worth happening happens to the young. And once that is over, well… “so on and so forth.”

Like Lethem’s Chronic City, Cohen’s novel could be termed “a bromance”: rather than sexless rock critic and oversexed actor, the bond here, the study in shadings, is between Teddy Hastings, an overachieving, fifty-something high school principal and father of two, reeling from the loss of his younger brother (a literary type) to cancer, and Oren Pierce, a mid-thirties, bookish, and omni-talented floater (having partially fulfilled graduate degrees in religion, film, psychiatric social work, and law). A perpetual adolescent, Oren would be unmoored if not for his work as Acting Vice Principal of the local high school in a small Massachusetts town, where he inches ever closer to that previously remarked upon precipice, “middle-age.” As a co-worker observes: “There’s something about that man. What is it? His eyes are all over the room.”

So, what happens?

In short, Teddy, after fourteen years as a high school principal, tries on his Oren Pierce hat, making a pitch at a new pursuit (photography, with calamitous results: “This is New England we’re talking about, a place with a proud tradition of repression and denial to uphold,” Teddy’s lawyer advises him), before embarking on a trip to Ethiopa to track down his wayward daughter, Danielle. Oren, meanwhile, tries on his Teddy Hastings hat, filling in while his boss is away. Then, for good measure, he embarks on an affair with Gail Hastings, Teddy’s wife (who happens to be the novel’s most dynamic character).

Transference, all around.

All of this has something to do with a teacher named Don Blackburn, one of the school’s most august personas, recently stricken speechless by a stroke. Oren takes to occupying Don’s empty house for hours at a time, under the pretense of seeing to its upkeep; he teaches Hawthorne’s Wakefield to a class of by and large uninterested students (“Maybe for Wakefield the only time his life looks interesting, looks real even, is when he’s standing outside it, looking in”); the affair with Gail begins in Don’s absented bed. Meanwhile, Teddy’s desire to reclaim something like the freedom he enjoyed in youth is propelled by his shock and horror at poor Don’s fate.

The wheels in motion, Cohen follows their revolutions with stunningly observed prose, conscious thought in reverie. By Beckett-inspired gradations (a few feet of agonized progress, another limb rendered useless!), the protagonists’ paradoxical meditations proceed, the minute seeming always to lead back to the overarching, and vice versa, but never without a humorous turn. Reflects Teddy, prior to taking his leave, on the subject of books and marriage:

Between her books and his you could hardly move around the bedroom at this point. But then books and marriages were well suited to each other… Both were middle-class adventures: they conspired to keep you at home, sitting still, being good. Meanwhile the mind went sneaking off under cover of darkness, traveling the world, kissing strangers in parking lots, suffering torments and temptations no one could see.

Oren, meanwhile, in the throes of an affair with Gail, pushes past the subject of marriage and books altogether to settle on an obsession with newness: “Something you discovered, not invented. Something already there. The design embedded in the carpet. The scrambled message in the acrostic. The tiny blue egg cradled in straw at the bottom of a nest. A newness that lay latent in its opposite, like oil in rock.”

Visited by memories of his departed brother Philip, Teddy muses on the folly of bourgeois attitudes: “Expecting the world to surrender its goods and lie belly-up at your feet like a dog — this was not just arrogance, Philip would say, but pathology.” Oren, in turn, communes with the spirit of Heidegger: “Suppose you were one of those people who perpetually longed for the extraordinary; did that mean you really longed for the ordinary? Or was longing for the extraordinary the most ordinary longing of all?” Once on the ground in Africa, Teddy finds himself admiring camels for “their melancholic persistence, their elaborated necks, their sly, lofty, aristocratic expressions.”

Beyond the elegance of his sentences, Cohen’s most memorable moments cut to the quick, pointing toward a premise that underlies what folks in a small town might take for granted. When Teddy at last catches up to Danielle, she has a dramatic revelation in store for him:

Okay, okay, he’d said. Come here. What else could he do? Their bodies, themselves: that was how they were raised. He’d pulled her onto his lap, stroked her bony, tremoring shoulders. Patted the clumps and knots in her hair, dabbed the snot from her nose with the back of his hand, smeared the dewy trails that ran down her cheeks like foul lines marking off the shining diamond of her face. Okay, okay. She’d clung to him that night as she had at the airport, with the same feverish intensity, the same flush of discovery and relief. As if each new moment were merely a repetition of an old one, which in the repeating became new.

– Jeff Price is an Associate Editor at Electric Literature

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