Find Myself a City to Live In: Jonathan Lethem’s Imagined Metropolis

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Dylan, as Lethem writes, is uneasy about the transformation of his neighborhood. He wants to reject Boerum Hill, even as he marvels at the changes. As he walks down his block he can “feel the juxtaposition, the crush of time,” the old and the new. His neighborhood now looks like “the set for an idealized movie.” What causes Dylan’s unease with the new Brooklyn of cafes, restaurants, and high-end shops is his understanding of authenticity and its relationship to his identity. How his Brooklyn was replaced with a shinny new one shakes his foundation. Dylan mourns the loss of his Brooklyn and realizes that growing up in Gowanus left him, as he says, with a “rage for authenticity.” In a 2003, New Yorker interview Lethem revealed how his relationship with changing urban neighborhoods mirrors Dylan’s: “I see them [new restaurants etc] through a very complicated gauze of irony, because I can’t help but have this double vision and see the past everywhere.” Maybe you can’t go home again, but maybe you can never really escape home either.

Dylan’s response to the loss of his neighborhood is to a loss of idealized space not community and certainly not people. As the novel unfolds, we see Dylan was almost always an outsider to his neighborhood, which was someone else’s before, and even while, it was his. Dylan, heeding his mother’s advice, is proud to have been from pre-gentrification Brooklyn, to have had some black friends. It is this relationship, even if marginal, to the “real” neighborhood (i.e. black and Hispanic) that allows Dylan to still call it his. Dylan is upset because Gowanus seemed to represent what was real, and now it is gone and where does this leave him. There are people living on his block who have not earned the right, have not put in the time. They haven’t paid their dues. Dylan is the victim, he convinces himself, just like the blacks and Hispanics who have been displaced, because his Brooklyn is gone too. But one suspects his victimhood is less rooted in the neoliberalism or the economics of gentrification. Rather, his is the loss of social capital. After all, they sold their home for a handsome profit and moved on.

Here is the complicated story of all white New Yorkers who grew in the changing urban environment of the 1970s. The childhood past, even if it was tough, was real and defining because the struggles of the city seemed so real. It formed identities and values. It survives idealized in one’s mind as reality changes. Dylan is both victim of the changes and also victimizer. His family moves to Gowanus as the first wave of gentrification begins. They attracted others until the floodgates were wide open. What Dylan remembers is the imagined city of his childhood. But, Dylan’s memories as retold are not about the community, but about his navigation through or over it and his absorption of that culture through remote connections. Dylan, through his proximity to blackness, adopts a form of blackface to develop his persona. At college, unable to fit into a wealthy student body, he adopts blackness as a wardrobe. To fit in he becomes Brooklyn, a white representative of black Brooklyn to kids who didn’t know the difference. “I’d throw Brooklyn down like a dare,” Dylan claims. “I earned my stripe at Camden [the fictitious college] by playing a walking artifact of the ghetto.…” This proximity to blackness is important to Dylan as a set of authentic experiences, but proximity is not the same as immersion or an embrace.

Lethem’s characters show that race matters in complex ways to Brooklyn’s white middle class. One reads Lethem for many reasons. One should be to better understand the complexity of the modern urban experience and the centrality of race. W.E.B. Dubois, writing in 1900, said, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”  Lethem reveals just how true this statement remains, even if the line is hidden or recast as real estate, revitalization, hipness, or a quest for authenticity. Navigating tight urban spaces, weaving oneself through the city streets requires understanding the rhythms and pulses of the neighborhoods, “street smarts.” This serious anthropological language can’t be learned from books, but rather it is acquired from experience, time and listening closely to the pulse of urban life. It is what Dylan Ebdus thought he earned by living on Dean Street, the authenticity that the new inhabitants didn’t seem to get. But Dylan might have only been listening to echoes rather than the actual music. The knowledge and sensitivity that many never know the difference between echoes and music make Lethem a real New York writer. Sometimes his characters seem to know that they only hear echoes and actual music may be his greatest contribution to urban literature. Lethem understands and is saddened by Dylan’s distant stance and sometimes tone deafness.  Other writers might imitate or emulate his Lethem’s style, an echo of an echo, but they have to listen like Lethem more closely for the rhythm to truly know the city.

Reading Jonathan Lethem refocuses our lens on the critical and hidden issues that New Yorkers and other urbanites deal with all the time on the streets. At its core, the issue is about who’s real in New York. But more importantly, it reveals the often hidden dialogs, contradictions and hypocritical stances that are at the very core of urban culture. Lethem does us a service by pulling back the curtain reminding us that we are hearing echoes and not the real thing, and forcing his readers to leave the relative safety of fiction for reality.

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Rumpus original art by André Eamiello.


Richard Greenwald is a professor of history and dean of the graduate school at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His next book is entitled, The Micropreneurial Age: The Permanent Freelancer and the New American (Work)Life. More from this author →