The State of Ellipsis: Who is Perkus Tooth?
— Editor Note

What better way to celebrate Seattle's most recent HempFest than with a tour through Jon Lethem’s 2009 book, Chronic City and a look at its most enigmatic character, Perkus Tooth?

Who is Perkus Tooth? Jon Lethem has all but admitted that Perkus is based in large part on his friend Paul Nelson. Perkus is more than this, however, and to appreciate him fully requires a brief overview of much of Chronic City. Prepare for a journey of associations that Mr. Tooth himself might be pleased with.

There are myriad references to pop culture in the book, ranging from Chthonic Youth (Sonic Youth), Florian Ib (Frank Oz) and even a reference to "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" The most persistent reference, however, is to “Gnuppets.”

The Gnuppets are Muppets, of course. The silent G stares its readers in the face. You would not know it was there if you heard the book read aloud, but in print it is inescapable, a constant tug at a person’s attention, hinting at a different meaning to the word.

Much like Perkus himself. A friend of mine said that Perkus’s strident voice often bounced him out of the story. Perkus's tirades are supposed to bounce you out of a story that doesn't quite feel right, so you start to look between the lines for clues as to what is going on. Let’s follow him through the strange place that is Lethem’s Manhattan.

The first thing to know is that the politics and business in this version of Manhattan (although ostensibly the point of the story) are peripheral. The main character and narrator, Chase Insteadman, refers to businessmen as “the gray money-people.” Chase tends to sound like a child. This is because Chronic City = Sensimilla /Sesame Street.

Where are the Gnuppets? Perkus constantly tells Chase that he and the rest are all Gnuppets. This is true.

Chase Insteadman = Cookie Monster

Strabo Blandiana = Snuffalupagus,

Richard Abneg = Oscar the Grouch

Georgina Hawkmanaji = Big Bird

And so forth, and so on. Not everyone is a Gnuppet but if a reader pays attention to the physical descriptions of the characters it is possible to guess. Once I saw this this weird divide between noir and puppet I could not unsee it, which was extremely disorienting on the second read-through, as if I were viewing two different versions of the world at once, through a wandering eye.

Is Perkus Tooth also a Gnuppet? Or is he a "real" person? Perkus seems convinced that these do exist, much like human actors strolled through Sesame Street.

Perkus is someone who is entombed indoors all day and and so would probably be very pale. Strong sunlight triggers migraines that burn in his brain. He does not sleep well and probably has dark circles around his eyes. The author makes a point of describing his narrow wedge-shaped head, back-slanted ears and a long, pointy nose, his eccentric dress, long arms and toothy smile...

We tend to forget that the Sesame Street Count is a silly puppet-caricature of something that was once primal and terrifying. Perkus used to be important, so much so that he could afford to have strange quirks but still write his own ticket. Now he is reduced. That is one dimension of Perkus Tooth: people forget the history of their culture. People don't remember the original. They see the recent caricature of it and now the caricature is all that is left. Like the picture of the polar bear on an ice-floe cut off from the mainland-- the picture that Perkus tries to make a poster from, in order to express his feelings of isolation and loss. Perkus and Oona are in disagreement about whether it is about bears or isolation or both.

As the story goes on, Perkus goes from being cool and dangerous to being a vain, washed-up parody of himself. He dresses in a purple coat to attend an elite party. Other partygoers keep calling him "little purple friend."

When one person knows the origins and connections between various cultural elements and the others around him do not, it becomes profoundly frustrating. "I am the polar bear on the ice floe," Perkus says sadly to Chase. Eventually the ice floe melts away entirely and takes the Perkus with it. There is nothing but meaningless slurry-slush-stuffing left.

"Marlon Brando will save us," Perkus keeps repeating. This may be because Brando's greatest role was nearer to the end of his career than the beginning. Perhaps he might inspire hope for a comeback in Perkus. The real-life Brando made a movie with Frank Oz (as the Chronic City Brando made a film withFlorian Ib) called “The Score." During shooting of the movie Brando became irate at Oz and referred to him only as “Miss Piggy.” As in the book, Brando came onset stripped from the waist down.

In other words, Brando can tell the real people from the Gnuppets - even when the director of the whole charade is a Gnuppet who looks like a real person!

Perkus is half-crazy because he is the only one in the book who is semi-aware of what is going on. Hence his coming unglued and screaming at Chase (and at the reader). These characters are totally unaware of what they are. They are not meant to do Hitchcock, or politics, or narcotics.

Let us leave aside the Gnuppets and consider another possibility. Perkus Tooth loves possibilities, which is why he loves his state of “ellipsis,” when all the possible associations crowd into a syntactic omission to fill in the text in a variety of ways. He loathes his migraine clusters, which are “a death state, where all possibilities shut down.”

Chronic City is also meant to be a computer game in which the player navigates a lot of dark films like "The Birds" and "The Godfather." Remember the little game Perkus invented near the beginning of the book? Someone took his idea and turned it into something entirely else: a huge phenomenon, Yet Another World. This is another way in which he used to be important but was left behind. But what if this whole version of Manhattan is the isolated setting for that pulp-fiction mystery game? They haven't gotten all the graphics in yet and so the programmers just use graphics of Gnuppets to run through the story to test it. Chase Insteadman is a voice-actor. Chase is a some random child-star they got to fill the role of the boyfriend, but it's because someone else also backed out, so the love interest Janice/Una must to chase him, instead.

Chase believes that he knows what he is doing but he does not understand what's going on and the frustrated computer programmer keeps yelling at him. Seen that way, Perkus might be the avatar for the programmer. The dialogue makes this plausible. He keeps telling Chase, almost in so many words, "You don't get it, you've never even seen these movies! Quit screwing around, you're lucky to be here at all, you-- you replacement!”

Chase not technically a real character: he does the voice for the player character. He represents the hope that there will be people who want to play. All the while, the game's creator is hoping that Brando will agree to do some voice-acting for the game and save it from obscurity. That is why the politics are so vague and why the pulp-fiction story, which should be at the forefront, sort of goes on in the background.

What happens if major edits need to be made to the game? If a person could "see" these constant revisions (with a crazy eye) they’d be going out of their mind. If someone else took a person’s idea away and kept cutting him further and further out of it, making it into something he never intended it to be, he’d be distressed. In this version of Perkus, his avatar becomes lost and disoriented as whoever played him goes away. More clues as to what is happening “off screen” are offered as the plot progresses, particularly in the evolution of the dialogue between Perkus and Oona is any indication.

At one point there is a long conversation about Yet Another World in which it is explained that in online worlds, anyone can control any sort of avatar. Men could pretend to be women, children pretend to be adults and so on. It always seems as if men play the exaggerated female characters such as Georgina Hawkmanaji. Phoebus, what a name. She acts so feminine and dainty, despite being six feet tall and well-endowed, that she goes all the way 'round to become a caricature of a woman. Chase even refers to her as the Hawkman on occasion.

Or perhaps someone who suggested as much would be paranoid, seeing a distorted world through a googly eye.

Perkus tells Chase that most people do not like to watch letterboxed movies because they do not like being reminded of what they aren't seeing... and also goes on to include books. "When your gaze slips beyond the edge of a book or magazine, you notice the ostensible texture of everyday reality, the table beneath the magazine, say, or the knee of your pants."

Chronic City is definitely not just a computer game. That is just another level on the way down the rabbit hole. So Chase's incongruity is more than the dumb voice-actor, of course. This isn't just a half-finished computer game, though that is one dimension of it. His descriptions are clever and he thinks like an existential philosopher. Yet Chase never says the right thing. Most of the time he cannot even find words and seems like a duffer to those around him.

Chase’s best descriptions happen when he is trying to figure out what is going on with people or settings. I think this is meant to be whoever is looking through the screen-- or at the pages-- of this game/book world. Sometimes Chase even says this, casting his opinions onto "you." When describing Biller, "His voice was still gentle, even meekly hesitant, but now you imparted to this gentleness a certain majesty..."

Not I. You. You are the reader, after all. This book is a small window into a world, but that window rests on your table or knee. Perhaps Chase's brilliance when casting about for hidden meanings & motivations is actually yours. The author is speaking through Chase, inviting you to see into the world of the book, but it's up to you to impart meaning to these things. Perkus, who is more obviously the main character and the author's manifestation, invites you to connect these various dots that you're seeing. Chase represents the hope of... something. Not just the hope of a man re-united with a non-existent astronaut fiancé; not just the crazy paranoid hope that someone will want to play a computer game.

Chase represents the author's hope that someone will read his book. You, the reader, do not get to talk in this book, just as Chase does not verbalize well. You do get to think all kinds of things about it and to consider Chase‘s thoughts. You do not have any lines, but you are participating. If you get frustrated and shut the book or throw it away, you cut it off from everything. The story exists but it is utterly meaningless without you to give it and its characters life.

Gnuppets and non-Gnuppets could refer to player characters and non-player characters, if we look at the video-game version of Chronic City. There are no other readers running around whatever version of Chronic City you choose to see. In a sense there are, in the fact that others read the same book and talk about it afterward. The difference is notable, however: you talk about a book outside the book because you know you're outside it. If you were really inside it, you would be wondering who the other readers were, where they were, who is a Reader and who is not.

Just as the inner sanctum has been reached, just when the mystery is about to be revealed, the ending of the book slams like a door in a reader’s face, a la the ending scene of "The Godfather." The mayor explains the plot. Mundane explanations are offered for everything from Perkus’s condition to the basis for Chase’s nonexistent astronaut fiancé.

Richard Abneg twice tells about the Stonehenge restroom. He explains that you enter through the tunnel and go around the Stonehenge and then come back out to the real world. The only thing you have in common with the others there is that for a brief moment in your disparate journeys, you were viewing the same thing. Upon departing it, you are all wondering, "what exactly did we just see?" because you're back on the street, blinking in the light of day.

That is what the ending of Chronic City is supposed to recall. You get a glimpse of a kaleidoscope of characters and conspiracies and myriad connections... and then the door closes. You and other readers are back on the street, blinking, having glimpsed the same strange sight.

I imagine that is where Perkus spent much of his life, blissfully circling the stones of ellipsis before returning to the world with the rest of us. Perkus is the rush to fill the ellipsis, that break in context, with every possible meaning. That is Perkus Tooth.