Edan's Reviews > Chronic City

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
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Jan 05, 2010

really liked it
Read in December, 2009

This is my favorite of Lethem's novel thus far. Fortress of Solitude had moments of brilliance, but the language felt too wanna-be DeLillo. Motherless Brooklyn was a bit dull for me, though others I know really love that book. I resent his novel about Silver Lake--I have not read it, nor will I. I realize it's merely "an entertainment" in an ouevre of more serious books, but after spending a whole novel complaining about the gentrification of Brooklyn, why go and write a novel about an east-side LA neighborhood, post-gentrification, without being sensitive to the area's fraught history? Not cool.

Mike Reynolds wrote a terrific review of Chronic City, which I urge you to read right away. Just skip my stupid musings.

I found this book dazzling in its strangeness. I love books about stoners, I think. Perkus reminded me of a friend my dad might have, if Perkus had moved to LA in the early-eighties and become a stand-up comedian, or gotten really into astrology. Or both. I can just see him sitting on the couch with my dad, dissecting movies on TCM, passing a joint, picking up and dropping with disdain the various magazines that litter the floor of the living room. In this scene, I'm in junior high, walking through with a big glass of Coke and a quesadilla on a paper plate, rolling my eyes.

I loved the chaldrons in this book, and I love that I Googled the word to find that Lethem had made them up. I love the Second Life-type virtual universe. I loved the New York Lethem created--finally, someone gets at the fakery of that town! Lord, am I sick of hearing about how geniune and raw and authentic New York City is. This alternate-reality Manhattan was gloriously rendered. All of this made the book a fun read.

A few times, the prose was a touch on-the-nose. Usually when Chase Insteadman (his name itself, a little on-the-nose) waxes poetic about his role: "I might love Janice, yes, but what I showed these people was a simulacrum, a portrayal of myself" (35). Duh! This line is like a 20-year-old English major's wet dream. Why don't you just write the paper for her, Jonathan?! Other times, the prose was difficult to read, clumsy. I'd read a sentence twice, and it dissolved before my eyes. A few just seemed overly complicated: "Richard bolted from his taxicab, punching black shoe prints in the dusty covering that had begun to whirl from the sky" (397)--there was real confusion for me here, with the use of "covering" to describe the layer of snow on the ground. And this one was just a mess: "Now she'd taken a new assignment, covert as ever: an autobiography of Laird Noteless, who'd received the commission for the Memorial to Daylight popular sentiment had demanded in reply to the gray fog downtown" (96). Huh? In both cases, I was yanked out of the fictional dream, so to speak--and if you're about to say, "But, man, that's Lethem's project! He wants to remind you that you're reading fiction, blah blah blah!" just shut the fuck up. Most of the time, I was in the fictional dream Lethem created--it was bizarre and complex and not-quite-real, but it worked, because the language was accurate and smooth, even if syntactically complicated. I wished the whole book had been flawless in this regard. Near the end, the language exhausted me, especially after a pretty upsetting event that I was emotionally affected by. I wanted to see the moment head-on, but the narration wouldn't allow it. Perhaps that was an aesthetic choice, but it's still one I didn't like.

But, overall, an incredibly fun and ambitious book, and I'm glad to have read it!
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Lee (new)

Lee Hi Edan - I think NYC (even Manhattan) might be too big and diverse to be called "fake." A couple blocks of Manhattan might be hyperreal/overly digitized (Times Square) or demonstrate way too many face lifts (Madison Ave), but otherwise, it's definitely a real/authentic place. I hear this argument all the time in Philly (a very "authentic" city, they say) and always feel like it discounts 95% of NYC. Anyway. Hi. Hope LA is rugged, raw, and real in 2010!


Edan Hi, Lee! I guess I'm sick of people suggesting that New York is "more real" (or, "less fake") than any other city in the world. In my opinion, every well known city or place is bolstered by people's assumptions of it, and its history, and its image(s), so that "authenticity" is difficult to pinpoint. I don't mean this in a derogatory way. Whenever I go to New York, I feel like, "Here I am! I'm in New York!" and I refer back to every single book, movie and television show where New York is represented. It's kind of a mindfuck, actually, and I love it. (And I don't mean Times Square specifically--I mean the whole damn island.) I think people in New York are just as obsessed with their image as people in LA, or Houston, or Iowa City, or wherever. What I like about Chronic City is how playful Lethem is with this idea, and how rich his characters are, even the former child-actor narrator who is also, in a way, a kind of paper doll of a person.


message 3: by Lee (new)

Lee I typed too much stuff in reply about the "determined" or "composed" sense of a highly visible sliver of the city's citizens, but deleted it. Living in Philly (after a few years in Brooklyn - not counting the IC), I've wasted months, if not years, comparing here and there, arguing about the meaning of "authenticity," realness, fakeness, real-fakeness, fake-realness, on and on, thus my reply/interest. Maybe I'll check out the book, though.


message 4: by Helena (new)

Helena Corder Unrelated--Edan, after reading your review of Lorrie Moore's recent book, I finally got around to reading Birds of America yesterday. Why didn't I read her before? I inwardly gushed over every other sentence.


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