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.