Esteemed Brooklyn scribe Jonathan Lethem’s new book is all about Manhattan, but it’s not just any part of that god-forsaken borough — it’s about the Upper East Side!
But before you worry that Lethem — who cut his teeth exposing Brooklyn’s seedy underbelly in “Motherless Brooklyn” and capturing its rapid gentrification in “Fortress of Solitude” — made a mistake by framing his much-anticipated eighth novel “Chronic City” around such a staid nabe, consider this: It’s a satire of Manhattan, not a tribute!
Here’s how Lethem views Manhattan, at least in “Chronic City”:
• On Manhattan’s disorder: “To live in Manhattan is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interleave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes that pavement-demolishing workmen periodically wrench open to the daylight and to our passing, disturbed glances. We only pretend to live on something as orderly as a grid.”
• On the Upper East Side as frozen in time: “The secret of this place is its quarantine from the boom-and-bust of Manhattan’s trends and fashions. Maybe someday, if the rumors are true, they’ll build a Second Avenue subway line and all of this will change. For now, what’s here is entrenched and immutable.”
• On Upper East Side tastelessness: “Money has been here so long it’s a little decrepit. 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.
• On being an outsider to Manhattan: “I had barely a chance to dwell on the dismaying cityscape as the train soared above ground, the slate-brown monolithic prewar tenements, the rusted Coca-Cola–sponsored bodega signs, the glass-strewn lots full of twisted ailanthus shrubs, before we’d abandoned the elevated views and descended to that unfriendly map ourselves. I felt a little overwhelmed, being one who flinches from any wider world but prefers to feel at home in Manhattan, to glimpse the island’s own provinces and badlands, its margins.”