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Book Review: Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

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When the first character a narrator of a novel introduces to readers is named Perkus Tooth, it ought to be clear from the start that the boat we are about to set sail in is not your typical ocean liner, the book not your run of the mill realistic novel. So if what you are looking for is a conventionally packaged narrative that holds the mirror up to nature, you would probably do well to stay away from Jonathan Lethem’s dystopian vision of life in modern Manhattan, Chronic City. If on the other hand, the nature you’d like your mirrors focused on is never going to be all that clearly reflected because in the end it’s complexities usually defy clarity, if you find that in simply trying to illustrate the inexplicable a novelist is doing the only thing he can, if you recognize that any arbitrary order imposed on the disorder that is life oversimplifies and falsifies, then Chronic City is the book for you.

In the tradition of such idiosyncratic literary gems as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Voltaire’s Candide, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Chronic City is as much concerned with how the madness of its world vision can and should be copied as it is with the actual copying. The city that it describes has real streets — 84th Street, Third Avenue. It has subways and taxis. It has landmarks like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But at the same time, the city it describes may or may not have a tiger roaming its streets and undermining its buildings. It has an apartment house for dogs, but no place for its homeless people. It has a gigantic pit masquerading as a work of art. If it is Manhattan, it is Manhattan askew.

And the people who live in this Chronic Manhattan are more than slightly askew themselves. There is Chase Insteadman, a semi-successful child actor living on his residuals. He is engaged to an astronaut who is marooned on a space station with a crew of Russians and one other American. Chase’s life seems to consist of dining out on the prurient interest in his doomed love and an occasional voice-over job, until he meets the ludicrously named Mr. Tooth. Perkus is something of an underground cultural critic who refuses to acknowledge his role. He is obsessed with pet cultural figures and works which he is convinced have a real understanding of the truths of life: Marlon Brando, The Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” Kafka’s stories, among others. He seems to spend most of his time in his apartment watching old movies and TV shows, listening to music, and smoking pot in his search for truth and meaning, passions which Chase very quickly comes to share.

Add to these a female ghost writer who seems only interested in Chase as a kind of boy toy, a political aide to the mayor who prides himself on his coarse behavior, a rich socialite enamored with his coarseness, and a homeless computer whiz. This is the supporting cast of truth seekers that Lethem assembles to join Perkus and Chase in their quest for the meaning of life in the City.

It is a quest for answers to mysteries wrapped in enigmas. In a world where people write other people’s life stories for them, where people fake love for one another, where a trip to Stonehenge is reduced to a stop at a rest room, what is it that has meaning? What is real? Are we even real or are we avatars in some vast computer generated world? Perhaps there is no reality but virtual reality. Are we like hand puppets manipulated by unseen hands, actors tied to scripts we are doomed to follow? Even the material around us may well lack a reality. It may well be like Platonic shadow in the cave devoid of “thingliness.”

Chronic City is a complex book dealing with complex ideas, but it is never stuffy. It is filled with comic situations and set pieces. Characters argue about whether Marlon Brando is dead or not. They curl up with a three legged dog. They have mystical experiences bidding on eBay. Lethem’s prose is enriched with layers of allusion. There are pop culture references to everything from Sandy Bull to Rod Serling, Jimmy Stewart to Sauron; there are higher brow allusions to people like E. M. Cioran, Edward Gorey, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Lethem likes elaborate comparisons: a policeman has a face like a pudding with the features thrown on; walking on a plush carpet is like snowflakes caught in an updraft. There is a lot of nice word play combined with a kind of black humor, a waitress killed in a building collapse is a “crush crushed.” There are little literary jokes. A book suspiciously like David Foster Wallace’s monster tome, Infinite Jest is called “Obstinate Dust” and it is written by Ralph Warden Meeker; later it is mistaken for “Immaculate Rust” by Sterling Wilson Hobo.

Lethem has written a novel that demands a reader willing to follow an inventive mind through a maze where the path is constantly changing, where things more often than not aren’t what they appear to be. He demands a reader who is willing to put aside conventional ideas and look at revitalizing the forms of fiction for the twenty first century. It is not that Chronic City is such a completely radical departure from the traditions of the genre, it is a beginning. It is the kind of book that will reward anew with every reading. Moreover, it is a book that will get many re-readings.

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