One of the main characters in Jonathan Lethem’s 2009 novel, Chronic City, is a cultural critic called Perkus Tooth, who carries out his critic’s duties largely by sitting in his apartment smoking a lot of pot and sharing his theories on, among many other things, Semina Culture, J. Edgar Hoover, “Brando as sexual saint,” and the Futurist movement with the surprisingly awestruck narrator Chase Insteadman. (In his defense, Chase smokes a lot of pot too.)
Understandably, though, what strikes Chase as particularly odd about Perkus are his eyes. One is “orderly” and follows the traditional ocular method of looking directly at whatever Perkus wants to see. The other, variously described as “divergent,” “disobedient,” “crazy,” and “mutinous”—in fact given a different adjective whenever it’s mentioned—wanders about more randomly, apparently seeking “to discredit” Perkus’s “whole sober aura” by adding an element of playful mischief.
More than twenty years into Lethem’s career, it’s hard not to interpret Perkus Tooth’s eyes as emblematic of Lethem’s entire approach to fiction.1 Take, for instance, his literary tastes. In an essay that seemed designed to alienate—or at least tease—his more hipster fans, he once wrote that he’d “rather be stuck on a desert island with the collected works of Barbara Pym than those of Thomas Pynchon”; and that it was such resolutely orderly writers as Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, and Anita Brookner who shaped his “sense of what novels should feel like.” “I felt fashionable being asked about Pynchon and DeLillo,” he added, “but really had already gleaned what I’d need of political paranoia from Graham Greene,…and it was Greene’s sense of form…and [of] how to present a character, that seeped into my writing muscles.”2
Yet at the same time, Lethem is famously a long-standing champion of the distinctly divergent Philip K. Dick—to the point of editing Dick’s work for the Library of America. Nor are there many other literary novelists whose love of comic books has extended to writing a ten-issue revival of Marvel’s 1970s series Omega the Unknown.
The same dual vision is also there in Lethem’s own fiction, where straightforward realism is often combined with something more unruly, reckless, and antithetical—three more adjectives that are, in Chronic City, applied to Perkus’s rogue eye. Admittedly, in his early work the straightforward realism wasn’t hugely conspicuous. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), set out “to locate the exact midpoint between Dick and Chandler”—and very probably found it in the tale of an Oakland private eye tracking down a gangster kangaroo in a world of super-evolved animals and super-evolved narcotics. But even here, Lethem was careful to provide the old-school satisfactions of pace, character, and a plot more cogent than most of Chandler’s plots.
Next came three works of unabashed science fiction, complete with postapocalyptic wastelands (Amnesia Moon, 1995), black holes (As She Climbed Across the Table, 1997), and the colonization of other planets (Girl in…
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