Characters have always been the most enigmatic part of fiction writing to me. David Mamet once said, "There are no characters. There are just words on a page," and when I first heard that quote I found it liberating. It's easy to forget that writing is, by its very nature, made not of dreams or souls of feelings, but of words. There is nothing hidden: where would it hide? Everything that happens in a story, happens on the page.
Fair enough. Yet characters, even more than a novel's static images, seem capable of wriggling free from the books that give them life; stepping, like the cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, from their fictive world into our own. If a character only exists in the writer's words, how is it that we feel we can remove him from the specific scenes dramatized in the book, that we can imagine the "outtakes," the wealth of ordinary days that stretch between the novel's oases of drama? And even if we loosen this definition of character slightly, saying that the character is defined not just by the specific words the author used to capture him but, in a larger sense, by his role in the story, how is it that we feel we can remove him from those circumstances and speak meaningfully of the same entity? To do such a thing is to be like the Little Prince, who imagines a real sheep living inside a drawing of a box. Which is to say what I'm suggesting is impossible. But it's nevertheless true, at least true for me, of the way I encounter characters in fiction. And it was particularly true of the way I encountered Perkus Tooth, one of the primary subjects of Jonathan Lethem's unqualified masterpiece, Chronic City.
Perkus Tooth is a mouth. He eats, he smokes, he talks, talks, talks. He is a consumer of music, film, pop culture, a ravenous devourer of information. To love him is to love the sound of his voice; his friend Chase declares, "Oh I missed him, and his ridiculous language. I wanted to hear Perkus speak it again." Like the novel's Gnuppets, Perkus only exists from the waist up – or more accurately, from the neck up. Headaches afflict him, hiccups destroy him. When he finally finds a soulmate of sorts in the pit bull Ava in the book's final chapters, Lethem makes the basis of their kinship clear: "...from the first instant, before even grasping his instinctive fear, Perkus understood that Ava did her thinking with her mouth."
Perkus Tooth is a knight. He quests for a grail, the fabled chaldron; he loves chastely; he devotes himself loyally to his kings (Brando, the Stones) and even to the haphazard alliances of his friendships – Les Non-Dupes, the Coalition of the Chaldron. A monster, the novel's "tiger," besets his city, destroys his home, slays a woman he loves. Yet he lives always by his code.
Perkus Tooth is a lazy eye, roving rudderless from subject to subject. Perkus Tooth is a critic, defined by reactions rather than actions. Perkus Tooth is a headache, a brain filled to rupturing. Perkus Tooth is "Shattered." Perkus Tooth is a fictional character in a metafictional novel, a character clad in iconography who speaks in riddles and allusions. And yet at the same time, Perkus Tooth is irreducibly, wholly, unmistakably alive: a little man in a crushed velvet suit, no more and no less. But how does Lethem accomplish this? How is it that Perkus, laden with so many symbols, does not get buried under their weight but rather flourishes, becomes more completely himself? How is it that I feel like I now know Perkus, despite the fact that he does not, and never will, exist -- how is it that I can imagine him sitting on my couch, analyzing the finer points of Brando's performance in The Island of Doctor Moreau? What is it, for lack of a better phrase, that "brings him to life"?
So. Perkus's verbal tic is a segue, and with good reason: each time Lethem has gotten a point across, each time a motif in Perkus's behavior has become almost predictable, stable in its meaning – from the brand of weed he smokes to the reasons behind his frequent visits to Jackson Hole – Lethem changes the subject, the focus of his prose. He complicates Perkus. He keeps showing him from new angles, in new conjunctions. Though Perkus does change over the course of the book, his real depth comes not from what develops but from what is revealed to have been there all along. Like a conspiracy, he connects improbable players, positioned worlds apart. He is Richard Abneg's loser friend, Oona Laszlo's former boss (and romantic reject), Chase Insteadman's mentor, Biller's library, Lindsay's best customer (probably Watt's, too). Perkus is a madman and condescendingly sane ("A dog doesn't need a stereo," he tells Insteadman), a ringmaster and a recluse, a paranoiac and a naif. Throughout the novel, Chase Insteadman as narrator tries again and again to encapsulate him in metaphor, including some of the ones I've listed above, and yet Perkus resists every time. As readers, we find ourselves in constant conversation with him, without hope of a final summing-up.
Perhaps Lethem himself says it best, when he writes:
"...it’s right to remind a reader that a character is a chimera, a shadow, a glance, far less in substance than even the shallowest human being who ever lived, it’s equally true that most characters are dwelling-places for dozens of human lives, containers for much more than a description of a single person."
Maybe the reason this character is so singular a creation is because, paradoxically, Lethem doesn't try to pin him down. The symbols that make up Perkus Tooth point in all directions, to literature, to New York City, to the personal and to the public. His obsessions have made parts of our world his -- and in the same way, as we piece him together, as we make sense of him, he becomes part of us. Lethem may claim that he is "incapable, with words and sentences, with speculations, of stealing anyone else’s soul," but he was capable of borrowing mine for long enough that I saw myself in Perkus Tooth's asymmetrical eyes, looking back.