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Book Review: Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

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Has Jonathan Lethem, who started out as a masterful reconstructive surgeon building genre formulas into high literature, turned into our greatest exponent of the “buddy novel”? The signs were evident in Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and even more pervasive in The Fortress of Solitude (2003), but stand out all the more starkly in his Chronic City (2009), which also finds Lethem returning to the New York terroir of his best known work.

Then again, this is Jonathan Lethem we are talking about. So don’t expect a conventional story of budding friendship. This is not Tuesdays with Morrie or even Bouvard et Pécuchet. Chase Insteadman and Perkus Tooth — oddball character names not found in any phone directory are a trademark of this author — settle into an unconventional alliance after meeting in the offices of a DVD reissue house where both are helping on projects. Chase is a former child television star living off residuals who has been enlisted to provide voiceovers. Tooth is an extravagant cultural critic, formerly with Rolling Stone, hired to write liner notes. Together they form an odd couple, the critic serving as oracle and madcap mentor to the thespian.

As with The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem engages the reader with a scene-setting that appears to reside squarely in the realist tradition… but then gradually mixes in elements of the fantastic that shake the epistemological foundations of the narrative. At first, these details in Chronic City come across as merely peculiar in a National Enquirer sense: a tiger is loose in Manhattan, our actor has a well-publicized romance with an astronaut stuck in outer space, an inexplicable chocolate smell settles in over the city. But then these sidebar plots get stranger and stranger and threaten to take over the novel.

In a throwaway line, the reader learns that The New York Times now publishes two different editions, one that is “war-free” and the other that includes all the news fit to print. By the time Lethem alerts us to the Chinese high-tech war in outer space, we know that something strange is happening on the outskirts of our story. Gradually Lethem’s realistic central plot is counterpoised against paranoid conspiracy theories, virtual reality treasure hunts, rumors of predatory robots, and other increasingly outré elements. But the marvel is how Lethem keeps his intimate character-driven story, and the shifting sands of love and friendship, at the center of his novel, even as it veers into the unknown.

I have written elsewhere of this type of writing, which I call conceptual fiction. It plays sly games with our conceptions of reality, experimenting with contextual frameworks the same way Joyce and Faulkner took chances with sentence structure. This bold approach to storytelling deserves more respect — it is, I believe, the reigning muse of the freshest and least predictable contemporary talents — and under the hands of authors such as Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Mark Z. Danielewski, and the late David Foster Wallace, conceptual fiction has started to emerge from the pulp fiction ghetto into the fashionable literary salons. Chronic City is a classic example of the grand and delightful literary structures such conceptual writing can produce.

Of course Michiko Kakutani, arbiter of literary taste resident over at The New York Times, hates a book of this sort. Her dour sensibility always puts her at odds with playful, expansive fiction, especially if it has any conceptual twist included. Lethem’s novel is “overstuffed” in her view. It is worth noting that, in similar Nutrisystems-type assessments, she called House of Leaves and Infinite Jest “fat and self-indulgent” while Pynchon was merely “bloated.” No doubt, she likes her stories on the anorexic side. God bless her, but I want more meat on the bone in the novels I read. Even so, I am not clamoring for a "Kakutani-free" edition of the Times. Au contraire, on the basis of her impressive track record, she has become my single best contrary indicator on the literary scene. When she delivers a hatchet job, I know it’s a novel I need to check out. So don’t trust me on Chronic City, trust her.

Yet unlike the conceptual fictions of the past, which made their reality-challenging premises the centerpiece of the story — if the book included an invisible man or a time machine or a war between worlds, it would not only dominate the plot but typically show up in the title — Lethem’s narrative still relies on good old fashioned authorial values. Chronic City succeeds in large part because of its exemplary character development, smart dialogue, shifting emotional attachments and detachments, and other elements of blocking and tackling. There are no throwaway scenes or hollow figures here. The quality of the writing is stellar from the outset and never flags. From the standpoint of metaphor and description, this is Lethem’s finest work yet.

So you can read this book to enjoy the fanciful fantasies or the real-life elements or just the fine prose. But you can also read Chronic City as a roman à clef. It’s hard not to identify the media mogul turned New York mayor Jules Arnheim with the real-life incumbent of that position. The long, challenging novel which Lethem’s characters can’t seem to get rid of — Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker — may remind you of another title and author mentioned earlier in this review. Along the way, you are invited to ponder the taller, lesser talented member of a defunct pop-rock duo, or the conceptual artist who has built his reputation on radical installations now working his disruptive craft in New York, and other possibly familiar personalities.

As the book evolves, its buddy story blossoms while the realistic frame that holds it starts to fade at the edges. Lethem mixes in a romantic triangle in which one of its hyper-acute angles stretches out into the stellar regions, but even the love story’s apparent reality begins to falter. At a certain point, Perkus Tooth ponders whether his entire life is being controlled by an outside force — which might be his paranoia speaking or, then again, simply the post-modern character contemplating his author. As Lethem unwinds his “concepts,” they typically present both plot resolutions and new philosophical questions — quite a stunning achievement!

Certainly, there is enough here to keep you wondering. Lethem winds up most of the key elements of his story at his conclusion, but leaves others open-ended to invite further puzzlement and hypothesis. The result is a marvelous book, phantasmagorical enough to delight, speculative enough to inspire inquiry, and with sufficient emotional charge to please those who — yawn! — just come along to cheer on the buddies.

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About Ted Gioia