Elaine's Reviews > Chronic City

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
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's review
Mar 30, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: american-contemporary-writers
Read in March, 2011

I'm generally a huge fan of Mr. Lethem's prose, but this book eludes me. There's a great play with the thematic twinning of fake versus real, whether Manhattan itself can be a sort of illusionist dreamscape with its flotilla of rich upper-crust East Siders, its quirky on-the-fringe inhabitants, its hobos and entrepreneurs and underground trade denizens. I was more than once reminded of Matrix, especially when the discussion centered around simulated reality, but in the end, I'm just puzzled. That Matrix thing has already been done. My admiration of Lethem, and having read his previous books, leads me to think he wouldn't even jump into this foray unless he had something new to add to this hoopla.

The tale ostensibly centers around one former child-star -- Chase Insteadman (who mistakenly gets called Chase Unperson) and his striking up a friendship with Perkus Tooth, a former rock star critic (broadside creator and self-appointed cultural watchdog for those of us who may not be familiar with Frank O'Hara, Joe Brainerd etc.). The duo is joined by an old childhood friend of Perkus, Richard Abneg and his high society consort, Georgina Hawkmanaji. They often congregate in Perkus Tooth's apartment on Eighty Fourth St. and smoke pot, watch old black and whites until the wee hours, discuss esoteric issues such as whether the tiger that had escaped and now prowled Manhattan wreaking havoc indiscriminately on New York public services is real or a Mayoral cover-up for something more sinister, whether Marlon Brando is really alive or dead, whether life itself as we know it is Yet Another World (think Second Life). They become obsessed with a hunt for something called a chaldron -- a kind of intriguing vase -- that began trading on Ebay for thousands of dollars. In their chase of the chaldron, they in fact discover more layers of virtual reality than they bargained for. Floating into this mix is the fact that Chase Insteadman is supposed to be engaged to a lady astronaut lost in space -- Janice Trumbull, whose love letters to Chase Insteadman, become a sort of public treasure to be consumed by the general Manhattan audience. At Perkus Tooth's apartment, Chase also meets finally one Oona Laszlo - a ghostwriter-- whose current project led her to view huge dug-up craters called art produced by Laird Noteless. Chase Insteadman then engages in a torrid affair with said Oona Laszlo to reach a denouement that is satisfying to no one, not Chase, not Oona, certainly not the reader.

Okay? What's the upshot? I've read a 547 page book and I keep thinking the whole book is an algorithm. But for what? Even the names -- Perkus Tooth, somebody Toothbrush, Laird Noteless (come on...), Chase Insteadman (instead of who?) -- feel like some kind of tongue-in-cheek Fibonacci sequence. I found Perkus Tooth too eccentric and strange, and despite attempts to make him lovable, he just wasn't, because half the time, I couldn't understand what he was on about. Chase Insteadman felt limp to me, purposeless, and spends all his time pushing away guilt he's supposed to feel about cheating on his lost-in-space astronaut fiance (who....get this....actually develops cancer of the foot in space and has to undergo a traumatic amputation), and the rest of the time led by his dick. To Tooth's fullness, Chase Insteadman offers one-dimensional caricature, but even this would have been okay, if there was just one personality trait about this whole bunch that made me care. Richard Abneg (short for abnegation?) and Georgina Hawkmanaji are too peripheral to matter. The chaldron? I couldn't climb on board that obsession no matter how I tried, probably because the characters were obsessed when stoned out of their minds. It's a bit like watching other people having a merry old time drinking or orgying, and you're sitting on the bench, just watching...how fun is that, really?

I do come away with a sense that this is a very clever writer. In a way, the entire novel is a kind of play with reality and fiction. What a reader expects to get out of fiction. We know it's not real, but we want so badly to be fed a story that feels so real it overtakes our own life for the space of however many hours it takes to transport the fantasy. This novel refuses to do just that. Deliberately. Steadfastly. In its slippery quality, a stranger than strange story, one that reminisces Twilight Zone, it continuously gives you a story that makes you go, "Seriously?"
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