On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the last day of the Thanksgiving weekend, we strolled over to Greenpoint's excellent Word bookstore to listen to Jonathan Lethem's progress as he attempts his marathon cover-to-cover public reading of his acclaimed new novel, Chronic City.
Lethem, a Brooklyn icon, is one of the best writers around, of course. We fondly remember stretching out our reading of Fortress of Solitude in October 2003 (our copy came from the Broward County Public Library, where we were first on the "hold" list for the book) because we loved it so much; it's one of the five best novels we've read this century.
Due to work pressures (four different teaching jobs, six days a week), we've been unable to get to any of his Chronic City appearances around New York - the city in which the novel is set - during which he will complete his reading of the entire book, culminating in a conclusion this Friday at Book Court.
But then we read this "breaking news" in The Brooklyn Paper:
The Bard of Boerum Hill — who made the front page of The Brooklyn Paper this week for falling hopelessly behind in his attempt to read the entirety of his new book, “Chronic City,” in eight sessions — has just added another reading before the Dec. 4 finale in hopes of getting it done.
Lethem will read 40-60 pages of the Manhattan-bashing novel at Word Bookshop in Greenpoint on Sunday, Nov. 29 — a mere hillock in the mountain of prose that the “Fortress of Solitude” author must climb if he is to complete the 480-page novel at the finish line of the “marathon” on Dec. 4 at BookCourt.
Who knows if he’ll even get through the 60 pages? According to a statement from the bookstore, Lethem will read, “but not continuously — he’ll take breaks along the way to sign books and chat with listeners about the book.”
The statement also mentioned that there will be free “bagels, donuts, fruit [and] pie” — and everyone knows that a writer can’t refuse a complimentary snack.
To be honest, two hours seemed long for a reading, so we arrived half an hour late, at 1 p.m. (Okay, we took a nap. We're old people!) There were no seats left, not much standing room either in the Word bookstore's downstairs, but there were the stairs.
Cut to the chase: Coming in during the middle, we managed to follow the narrative only somewhat, but Lethem's satire is brilliant and his prose filled with stylistic wonders, so it was pleasure to hear him read. . .
and read. . .
and take some bites of a bagel. . .
and read. . .
There was a break to sign books and for him to be interviewed by WNYC radio.
And more reading. Also some questions and answers. Someone inquired how the New York-centric book was received outside the city (good, Lethem said), if he had to ask permission to use the real-life NYC settings in his novel (no, because that "all events in this book. . . are fictional" disclaimer gives a free pass to writers), how he felt about his books being made into films (fine, since he thinks the best movie adaptations merely use the book as a jumping-off point and so he has no desire to write the screenplays or even be consulted).
Around 2:25 p.m., the reading ended. By that point the crowd had thinned (we'd long since found a chair to sit on) and we saw a couple of audience members texting and at least one filing her nails.
But at least nobody ended up like this hipster we saw earlier today on the G train.
As we filed out, we decided it was such a nice day that we'd cross Franklin Avenue to the American Playground - rather than the Armenian Playground, the Nigerian Playground, or the Bangladeshi Playground, which all required too much walking to get to - and hang around for a while, reading.
It struck us that "American playground" is a good metaphor for Jonathan Lethem's portrait of a wacked-out Gotham in Chronic City. But what do we know?
Well, for one thing, that the coffee the bookstore provided was from Dunkin' Donuts but the donuts were from Peter Pan. For another, that we're grateful to get to see a great writer read from his work. Catch the finale - those of you who don't work Friday nights - at Book Court on December 4 and see if Lethem makes it all the way through.