So long, and thanks for all the fish !

Chronic City – Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City

.. I felt my interior map expand to allow for the reality of this place, the corridor floor’s lumpy checkerboard mosaic, the cloying citrus of the superintendent’s disinfectant oil, the bank of dented brass mailboxes, and the keening of a dog from behind an upstairs door, alerted to the buzzer and my scuffling bootheels. I have trouble believing anything exists until I know it bodily.


He had the waitress refill his gallon-sized Coke, too, then, as our afternoon turned to evening, washed it all down with black coffee. In our talk marijuana confusion now gave way to caffeinated jags, like a cloud bank penetrated by buzzing Fokker airplanes. Did I read The New Yorker? This question had a dangerous urgency. It wasn’t any one writer or article he was worried about, but the font. The meaning embedded, at a preconscious level, by the look of the magazine; the seal, as he described it, that the typography and layout put on dialectical thought. According to Perkus, to read The New Yorker was to find that you always already agreed, not with The New Yorker but, much more dismayingly, with yourself.


.. leaving you to contemplate the fact that behind the ilussion, there’s nothing!


“What are you doing later? And by later I mean pretty much anytime starting inmediately.”


Terms swarm up to tempt me in the course of this description: Greek Orthodox, Romanesque, flying buttress, etc. These guessing words I find junked in my brain in deranged juxtaposition, like files randomly stuffed into cabinets by a dispirited secretary with no notion of what, if anything, might ever be usefully retrieved. Often all language seems this way: a monstrous compendium of embedded histories I’m helpless to understand. I employ it the way a dog drives a car, without grasping how the car came to exist or what makes a combustion engine possible. That is, of course, if dogs drove cars. They don’t. Yet I go around forming sentences.


He sparked the first joint and passed it to Richard, then went on rolling two more, fingertips busy like a mad scientist at a console. “You’ll want to be freshly stoned,” he announced to no one in particular, to all of us. Richard didn’t hesitate, leaning back in his tux, now untucked and unbuttoned and unzipped in several places, bow tie dangling like a tongue, and drew in a lungful, seemingly certain he could conduct a diagnosis of Perkus in a state of intoxicated complicity. Then made as if to pass the joint to me, skipping Georgina Hawkmanaji, who sat erect and curious, pleasantly impassive, between us. Georgina reached out to intercept it, her glance at him only sweet, unreprimanding. She crossed her eyes and pursed her lips kissingly outward, rather than clamping them together, painting the rolling paper with burgundy lipstick before curtly coughing out her portion and waving the joint in my direction. I had to cradle her hand to steady it, then pluck the joint from her trembling fingers with my other hand. If the Hawkman hadn’t smoked, I suppose I might have abstained, too, the gesture of a gentleman. But I’d called this curious company together, and I wasn’t willing to be left behind wherever they were headed. I nearly finished the joint. Perkus used what remained to ignite the next, which we also devoured.

“Hurry!” said Perkus, now sweeping aside the smoking materials and dashing from the kitchen. Enspelled, we crowded around his small computer screen, Richard pulling up a chair and patting his lap to invite Georgina to settle there. I stood and craned over Perkus’s shoulder. I wondered at Richard Abneg’s uncommon passivity, but then I’d hardly equipped him to grasp what was wrong here. He’d have to gather an impression before leaping in with the caustic force I’d been bargaining for.

Perkus rattled his mouse, trying to wake up the dial-up connection. “I think there’s about twenty minutes to go,” he said. “Chase, would you turn up the music? Thanks.”

“What is that crap?” said Richard distractedly. A veteran of Perkus’s enthusiasms, he’d obviously begun readying himself for some esoteric disclosure on the computer screen. The music was, I hoped, the first clue that we’d migrated out of the usual range.

“It’s Sandy Bull,” said Perkus, not turning from the screen. He’d called up eBay, and now tapped Refresh, so the page blinked and began redrawing itself. “So, Chase’s acupuncturist was onto something, actually, there is some kind of tonality that resonates with the limbic system, and Sandy Bull’s guitar has got it in spades. You’ll see, it opens you right up to the chaldron. Chase explained to you about chaldrons, didn’t he?”

“Oh, sure,” said Richard, unflappably mocking. “All about chaldrons and acupuncture and limbic tonality in spades. You know me, Perkus, that’s some of my favorite stuff.”

“Be polite,” said Georgina softly.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Perkus breathlessly. “You’ll see. You have to be listening to the Sandy Bull and high on Ice when you see the chaldron, at least for maximum effect.”

“I’m in your hands.”

Well, we were certainly high. The four of us seemed to throb there where we’d gathered in Perkus’s dim lair, Georgina gracefully flung across Richard’s lap, long legs and elbows askew, hands gathered beneath her chin, Richard grunting slightly as he shifted her weight around trying to get vantage past her shoulder, the building’s radiators cackling and whining as they beat back the chill seeping through window seams, the four of us like the chambers of a collective beating heart, pulsing with expectancy despite Richard’s congenital cynicism or my heretical doubt. Perkus, the fugitive ecstatic, had infected us with zeal again, the critic’s illness. Who knew, there might be something limbic in the music as well, only I wasn’t sure I knew what the word meant. Just at the instant this occurred to me Perkus got the finished image of a chaldron, all the pixels now smoothed around the edges, centered on-screen.

There were words bordering that screen, I suppose-text with a seller’s description, the latest bids on the item in question, also eBay emblems and advertisements, sidebars and rulers, and a margin of Perkus’s computer-desktop bordering those. None of it pertained, no more than the dun-colored plastic casing of Perkus’s monitor, or the dusty volumes on the shelves behind the table where the computer perched. The glowing peach-colored chaldron smashed all available frames or contexts, gently burning itself through our retinas to hover in our collective mind’s eye, a beholding that transcended optics. Ordinary proportions and ratios were upturned, the chaldron an opera pouring from a flea’s mouth, an altarpiece bigger than the museum that contained it. The only comparison in any of our hearts being, of course, love.

Georgina Hawkmanaji leaned a little into the glow. Perkus scooted aside to invite her nearer, a gesture of munificence now that we saw what it was worth to have his privileged seat. How could we have come so late to this knowledge? Sandy Bull’s guitar, which a moment before had been a nagging schoolyard taunt, some universal nyah-nyah whine, now catalyzed and enlivened our desire for the chaldron, become less music than a kind of genial electricity, a subliminal correlative to our longing.

It was Georgina who placed the first words into this higher silence, her voice the first out of our joint trance. I think Perkus and Richard would have agreed she properly spoke for us all, her femininity and reserve the only appropriate thing, her trace of accent, formerly laughable, now a nod to the powerful essence of elsewhere radiating from the artifact. Our voices would have been too gruff and shattering to offer up.

“It is beautiful,” she almost whispered.

What were we going to do, contradict her? There was nothing to add. We were silent.

“A door,” Georgina added, even more completely under her breath.

I misunderstood and, not wishing her to be embarrassed, said gently, “I adore it, too.”


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