"When we speak of 'seriousness' in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death -- how characters act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate... (I suspect one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction appeal so much to younger readers is that, when the space and time have been altered to allow characters to travel easily anywhere throughout the continuum and thus escape physical dangers and timepiece inevitabilities, mortality is so seldom an issue.)" -- Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner (Introduction)
Over the weekend, I was thinking a good bit about this statement, and how sneakily true I've found it to be over the last few years. In my post on violent movies, I talked a little about what I saw as violence's power to make characters real, or more precisely, corporeal, to place the viewer in their living bodies -- to shift the focus from what happened (good or evil, right or wrong) to the necessarily more complex realm of how it happened. But, more even than violence, I think that the role of death in a work of fiction can lend characters this reality, or conversely, rob them of it.
After I read Chronic City, I struggled to articulate what made Perkus Tooth so real to me as a character. A larger and perhaps more interesting question, though, is why anything in the world of that novel felt as significant to me as it did. Chronic City presents a landscape burgeoning with pop culture references, and satire, and stoner humor, and sex. Eagles and tigers render characters homeless; an installation artist digs big holes in the ground. And Lethem is well aware of the hilarity of all this, playing even poignant moments for laughs: for example, when Perkus's heart is breaking, he "blame[s] the nearest cultural reference he [can] find"; when he and Chase are fighting over a burger waitress, he refuses to celebrate Thanksgiving, ostensibly "out of respect to Sacheen Littlefeather." The epic quest for the grail-like chaldron takes them to -- where else? -- ebay. In a certain way, the book sets itself up to be dismissed (a "baked Seinfeld," as one reviewer put it).
And yet, from the beginning, death circles this novel, just as the birds circle Insteadman's church spire, just as Janice Trumball's doomed space station orbits the earth. When Chase first meets Perkus, he observes, "With Tooth's turtle's posture and the utter slackness of his being... I could have taken him for elderly... [but] he was in his early forties, barely older than me. I'd mistaken him for old because I'd taken him for important." Perkus's fragility, and his failure, are the open secret of this novel, the first and truest fact of him. And though his quests and his brilliance and the bizarre accumulated complexity of his life and relationships for a time overshadow this in the reader's mind, it's his vulnerability that subconsciously sticks.
The same is true for the other characters. At the funeral where Oona and Chase initially pursue their love affair, Chase describes "the shameful survivor's lust I've known to sometimes wash over me at funerals, the giddy, guilty apprehension of one's own continuing lucky freedom to feast and fuck and defecate, to waste hours flipping cable channels watching fragments of movies or half solving crossword puzzles then tossing them aside, to do pretty well anything but sit and honor the memory of another whose lucky freedom had run out." When he and Oona flee the funeral together, they are fleeing death. Yet the two of them are no less mortal than Perkus or, for that matter, the now-deceased Junrow. When they visit the Urban Fjord, a child asks Chase if he's the same boy from the sitcom reruns; "You look old," he says, to which Chase replies, "I am old." And Oona? "Her frame wasn't strong enough to carry around a coat heavy enough to warm her." Neither of them are indestructible.
Throughout the novel, the characters seek to halt the inexorable forward motion of time through language, argument, art. Oona keeps Janice Trumball alive through the letters she ghostwrites; Biller removes the fact of Brando's death from the star's Wikipedia page; Insteadman's younger, immortal self is preserved on VHS as if under glass. And marijuana, their substance of choice, is known for its strangely slowing effect on one's perception of time. This is not your teenage brother's stoner novel. Only in forgetting the past, however temporarily, can these characters ignore the looming fact of a future where they'll have vanished into complete insignificance.
As Heidegger says, death is the essential fact of one's existence; though someone might sacrifice himself for my survival, no one can die my death for me. That death is my own. On further reflection, I think it is Perkus's death, more than anything else, that provides the center, the grounding, to his vast and complicated character, just as the presence of death does the same for the larger world of this novel. In his descriptions of Perkus, narrator Insteadman creates, at moments, an illusion of the infinite: "[Perkus's] mind's landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads," he notes upon their first meeting. Yet what ultimately defines Perkus, renders him tragic, is his finitude. Perkus never knows romantic love; he is a pawn in the conspiracies of others; his body is falling apart; and even his verbosity, his intelligence, once met its limit: "It's like when I tried to write a book, Chase. Practically every day I had to remind myself what it was even about, why I'd even started it!" he confesses in their final conversation. Insteadman wants us to mistake Perkus for important, for larger than life, just as he did; he wants to immortalize Perkus. But it's Perkus's unimportance that brings him to life -- and makes his death heartbreaking.
I'm not interested in quibbling over genre terms. Some people have described Chronic City as science-fiction. It's also fucking hilarious. But, when I return to the Pynchon quote, I can't help but think of it first and foremost as "serious fiction."