Alan's Reviews > Chronic City

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
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's review
Apr 23, 2011

liked it
Recommended to Alan by: Previous work and a complicated setting
Recommended for: Manhattanites, Manhattan-drinkers and all you poor exiles from the City
Read in April, 2011

Feverish and insular, Chronic City creates a whole world out of a few city blocks, on an island which is itself a mere 33 square miles in area (just about the same size, I found out recently, as the wilderness of Oregon's own Sauvie Island). It's a world where the far side of a city park can be an exotic and difficult tourist destination:
"The West Side was a mysterious distance from the East, the howling park between us and home." (p.61)
Lethem does a fine job of portraying people just like the couple of New Yorkers my wife and I met once, in the bustling Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, who slumped on chairs near us and sighed, without apparent irony, "it's so good to be out of The City."

Chase Insteadman (instead of what?) is our first-person narrator, a successful former child star now living fairly well off his residuals and the occasional voiceover gig for the Criterion Collection. I suspect Chase would be insufferable in real life. But as fiction, Chase is a breezy, articulate raconteur, still elegant and with a voice to be savored as he retells the obligatory stories of his astronaut fiancée Janice, stranded in orbit with a team of Russians, to other dinner-party guests on the Upper East Side. He's an inveterate name-dropper, though sometimes the names are fictional. There's a really rather odd mixture of real celebrities (Steve Martin, Laurie Anderson, Marlon Brando) and made-up but transparent placeholders for trademarks (the Gnuppets movies of Florian Ib, and the so-called "Yet Another World" online environment); sometimes the book seems to have been run through a lawyerly search-and-replace algorithm.

Chase's best friend (or, at least, most constant companion these days) is Perkus Tooth, a character just about as odd as his name. Tooth (who himself always refers to others by their last names) made a splash in New York with publicly-posted rants on popular culture, and had a gig writing—often about music—for Rolling Stone, though he steadfastly maintains that he's not a rock critic. In a way, Tooth's style reminds me of the real-life Howard Hampton's, whose acerbic essay collection Born in Flames I've recently reviewed, and perhaps because of that I was more ready to believe in him.

Perkus Tooth keeps Insteadman in dope (the Chronic of the title is a marijuana reference, though I also found in it reverberations of R.E.M.'s immortal debut EP "Chronic Town"). Tooth also keeps Chase busy with conversation and introductions to cinematic and literary obscurities, the kind that the aforementioned Howard Hampton has made his stock in trade. "Perkus lived as much inside a conundrum as he did a city." (p.340)

Chase, in return, provides an all-important sounding board; little services of soup, bagel and coffee; solicitude and external connection. It's a heavenly match, a perfect little after-hours club... but of course it can't last. Complications ensue, the kind of complications only we naked apes can get up to. There are fantastic elements—with the bizarre "chaldrons" that capture the characters' imaginations, and the strange burrowing tiger that rampages unchecked through the city's subconscious, this novel veers perilously close sometimes to genre fiction. But, really, Chronic City is about the human elements, trying to function amid such chaos.

Often all language seems this way: a monstrous compendium of embedded histories I'm helpless to understand. I employ it the way a dog drives a car, without grasping how the car came to exist or what makes a combustion engine possible. That is, of course, if dogs drove cars. They don't. Yet I go around forming sentences. (p.125)
This from Chase, although it could also be Lethem's veiled, uncharitable assessment of his own writing. Certainly the novel meanders, within its circumscribed frame of streets and avenues. Chronic City isn't Jonathan Lethem's best book (I'd still give that nod to the stunning Motherless Brooklyn), but... I still liked it, and found myself engrossed in its meticulous, detailed perspective on little old New York.

It often seemed to me that Lethem put more of himself into this book than in his previous volumes. When he says, for example, that "She gratified each question with a little surplus of revelatory value for which he couldn't have thought to ask" (p.327), Lethem's own habit for giving us just such surpluses is made explicit.

And there are little bits of snappy dialogue to admire throughout, like this exchange from p.116:
"I mean, I'd sing under your window, but I don't know which one is yours."
"I might not even have a window."
"I might not have much of a singing voice."
"Okay, well then, that sounds like a plan."

Chronic City is... a novel of disconnection, distances both real and illusory. The philandering Insteadman confesses that he cannot even remember much about his fiancée, stranded in space; he almost seems closer to Sandra, his sitcom mom. And that aforementioned insularity certainly comes into play, that bizarre separation between the island of Manhattan and the outer world (or even the Outer Boroughs)... for one example that struck me strongly: the reason Janice and her Russian companions are unable to leave orbit is because their capsule is surrounded by Chinese space mines, densely enough that they cannot maneuver out between them. Wait, what? Chinese mines? So we're at war with China now? Maybe... but if so, there is absolutely no mention of this state of affairs otherwise, no explanation for just how or why those mines came to be sown around Janice's lonely spacecraft to begin with... it's as if Chronic City is itself a "War-Free Edition" like the custom New York Times that Insteadman admires, and that I'll admit sounds like a pretty good idea to me, too.

So the book has holes, lacunae, inconsistencies big enough to pilot a shuttle through. So what? The rewards of Chronic City are recondite and obscure, and certainly not to everyone's taste. Like the musicians whose CDs Perkus Tooth keeps spinning for Chase, this book offers a way to be surprised that you haven't read—or, worse, have read and did not fully appreciate—its convoluted story. We take our pleasures where we can...
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