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Exclusive: The Thing with Author Jonathan Lethem

The Thing Quarterly is more akin to a conceptual art project than a scholarly publication, as the tag “Quarterly” may imply, though contributors like writer Jonathan Lethem give the objects in question a distinctly literary bent. In Issue No. 7, Lethem partners with former Jack Spade designer Matt Singer and Selima Salaun of Selima Optique to release the “Chaldron Optical System” onto an unsuspecting public, a public soon to be enlightened in the ways of the chaldron thanks to Lethem’s forthcoming novel Chronic City. (The “Chaldron Optical System” being a lovely set of black spectacles with custom text on both arms, encased in a royal blue case with a user’s manual in both English and français.) We speak to Lethem about African ants, Perkus Tooth, and the mysterious chaldrons after the jump.

The San Francisco-based periodical enlists writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists to make objects that feature text in idiosyncratic ways, and Lethem’s contribution, in addition to the physical text written on glasses, contains a manual that personifies his literary concept of a “chaldron,” a vessel for endless imagination.

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Flavorpill: Are you still working on the Promiscuous Materials project? I can see The Thing issue as an extension of that open source theory – gifting subscribers with a chaldron to use as they see fit.

Jonathan Lethem: Sure, the Promiscuous Materials go forward, on indefinitely into the future… the stories and lyrics are still there to grab, and results keep trickling in from all quarters… one of these days I should probably add a few new items, just to freshen up the joint. And sure, The Thing is a kind of cousin to that project, at least in the sense of affirming a sense of play and participation, of interdisciplinary relish rather than isolationist reserve for literary artifacts like CHRONIC CITY. I hope it strikes people as fun, anyway. And I’d be thrilled if I started seeing chaldron-art by people other than those I’ve officially deputized.

FP: Can you tell me a bit about your other recent collaborations with Je Banach and Matthew Ritchie?

JL: Pretty simple: Matthew Ritchie had already launched a project where he asked writers to provide him with verbal descriptions of imaginary or “impossible” objects, in order that he would then try to draw them — so, he fell right into my little chaldron-trap perfectly. I sent him a page of characterizations of chaldrons culled from the pages of CHRONIC CITY, and he did a lovely drawing, which I’m still hoping to collect and hang on my wall. Jennifer [Editor's note: Je Banach] came my way, too, with a suggestion that an established writer — me — might like to create a Sol Lewitt-style project where another writer executed something according to a series of instructions. I cast her into my chaldron plans, too, by asking her to write a series of short stories about characters who were chaldron-seekers — the chaldron-obsessed, the chaldron-beset. I’m still waiting to see what she’ll do with it.

FP: You’ve documented your obsession with music and Raymond Chandler, to name a couple areas of interest; where do art and objects fall on that spectrum?

JL: Well, I grew up in an artist’s household, but it was also a house in permanent renovation by that same artist, and so the line between my father’s art and the funky, mostly woodcrafted objects that occupied our space was often hard to delineate. Our objects were often second-hand, or hand-crafted, or some unholy combination of the two — they were very rarely being used exactly as their manufacturer intended, and were all the more evocative for that. I came of age inside a fertile confusion about form and function, one I still enjoy, so the The Thing seemed very natural to me. In fact, I use one of the earlier Things as a mug-holder for my writing desk.

FP: Were the spectacles for The Thing No. 7 modeled on your head?

JL: No, but they fit beautifully.

FP: Would you consider yourself a packrat? Is it organized collecting or haphazard?

JL: More like a bird, or maybe a colony of African ants, building some towering, Babel-ized nest. I picture packrats hoarding things, whereas I’m always grooming them, selecting and sorting, trying to perfect something impossible to perfect.

FP: Perkus Tooth is a recurring character in your work. What does he look like to you? How’s he doing these days? What’s he up to in Chronic City?

JL: He’s actually been completely hidden from view until CHRONIC CITY, so it’s a bit misleading to call him “recurring”. More like imminent, like the overture to a symphony, or the prodrome of a headache. For years, I felt him coming, tried to tease him out of his burrow, made jokes that presumed we were already friends before I actually knew him. I tried everything, but finally I had to give him a book. I hope he likes it.

Jonathan Lethem will sign copies of The Thing Quarterly’s latest release tonight at Printed Matter in Chelsea. Purchase back issues of The Thing here, and dive into Lethem’s seventh novel Chronic City starting October 13.

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