Reviewed by Arthur Nersesian
Jonathan Lethem's work has gone from postapocalyptic sci-fi to autobiographical magical realism. In Chronic City, he weaves these elements together, blending a number of actual recent events to create his own surreal urban landscape. The nearly mythological construction of the Second Avenue Subway spawns a strange destructive tiger that defies capture as it transforms the old city into a scary new one. A pair of eagles illegally squatting on an Upper East Side windowsill are summarily evicted. Best of all is the economic abyss that one once encountered above 125th Street. Here, Lethem has dropped a manmade fjord, a performance art chasm.
At the heart of this city is former child star Chase Insteadman. Lately, he is better known as a celebrity fiancé to fatale femme astronaut Janice Strumbull, who is stuck in orbit because of Chinese satellite mines. Lately, though, his greater concern is his friend Perkus Tooth. Perkus is a pauper scholar, a slightly delusional Don Quixote character whose windmills are called chaldrons, imagined vases that bring inner peace. Somewhat like the tragic poet Delmore Schwartz who Saul Bellow fictionally eulogized (and Lethem acknowledges) in Humboldt's Gift, Tooth cuts with equal parts genius and madness. Though he never really rises above a plasterer of "broadside" rants, he's a recognizable artifact of New York circa 1981. Between bong hitsyes, for you potheads, Chronic is his favorite brandand downtown cultural references, conspiracy theories hiccup from Perkus's lips. A prevalent notion he has is that our reality is nothing more than a facsimile, a simulation of a hidden reality. Perkus'shyperactive brain only pauses when he lapses into his periodic "ellipse"a kind of revelatory break. The only problem is his breaks are gradually increasing in frequency. Inasmuch as Perkus is a personification of the old New York and its highly endangered culture, Insteadman finds a moral duty to protect him.
If Perkus is Insteadman's moral conscience, Richard Abneg, an opportunistic politico, is Insteadman's naked ambition. Though Abneg started as an East Village anarchist, through intellect and arrogance he rose to become a powerful aide to Mayor Arnaheim (a Giuliani-Bloomberg hybrid). Now he's dismantling the rent stabilization laws he once championed. Eventually, these two work together to save Perkus.
Though Chronic City at times requires patience, it is a luxuriously stylized paean to Gotham City's great fountain of culture that is slowly drying up. Like the city itself, the book sways toward the maximal, but its prose shines like our skyline at sunset. The key to his city lies in the very notion of reality: Chase Insteadman's moniker implies that this former actor is now just a stand-in for a greater (perhaps former) reality. By the conclusion, I found myself wondering if Lethem hadn't originally written a shorter simulacra of Chronic City, when it was just an Acute City. From him I would expect no less.
Arthur Nersesian is author of The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx (book two of the Five Books of Moses). His next novel, Mesopotamia, a thriller, is due out next year.
One of America's finest novelists explores the disconnections among art, government, space travel and parallel realities, as his characters hunger for elusive meaning. Long associated with the borough of Brooklyn, Lethem (You Don't Love Me Yet, 2007, etc.) shifts to Manhattan in the indeterminate near future, ringing changes on the speculative science fiction that first earned him a cult following. Combining deft reportage and cultural insight with postmodern invention, he imagines a time and place where it is possible to opt for the "WAR FREE EDITION" of the New York Times. Manhattan's citizenry is terrorized by a tiger on the loose, but the marauder may be a media invention, a government construct or a machine. First-person narrator Chase Insteadman, an erstwhile child star, still lives off his residuals, as well as the refracted fame that makes him a welcome guest at the city's finer dinner parties. That fame has been recently underscored by the tragic fate of his fiancee, Janice Trumbull, a scientist-astronaut suffering from cancer while orbiting in space; her heartbreakingly witty letters to Chase are covered extensively in the media. Chase seems as disconnected from his surroundings as Janice is from earth, yet his life changes after a chance meeting with Perkus Tooth, a marijuana-smoking cultural critic who once enjoyed some renown as a writer for Rolling Stone. Tooth's sidekick is a wisecracking ghostwriter named Oona Laszlo whose work calls the very idea of identity into question; her relationship with Chase threatens to dispel the romantic myth of the child star and the astronaut in which the city apparently has so much invested. All truths and realities are open tointerpretation, even negotiation, in this brilliantly rich novel. Chase is the hero Manhattan deserves, we see, when Tooth describes his friend as "the ultimate fake. A cog in the city's fiction."Lethem's most ambitious work to date, and his best since Motherless Brooklyn (2001). Author tour to New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver and Miami
Before the sun dies and the Earth's core cools, before the zombies tear down the skyscrapers and all the pages are ripped from the library books, our species may already have long withered away in a virtual dystopia of failing beauty, faux terrors, and digitally-rendered hopes. Or if not all mankind, at least Manhattan. Such is the bleak path Jonathan Lethem lustrously figures in Chronic City. His subtly ambitious eighth novel explores the extent to which the virtual shadows of our postmodern world, interposed and clanging, proliferate and intensify even as they begin to cancel one another out.
Here is a Manhattan in frozen form, wintry and stilled, as if taxicabs, car alarms, and investment banking are already undergoing a kind of heat-death. Where Lethem's previous novels engage New York as a setting of memory and imagination, in Chronic City, Manhattan is almost a ghost town, not so much post- as peri-apocalyptic, the set of a zombified version of Seinfeld whose denizens are somnambulantly busy, exempt from the exigencies of avoiding disease or making money.
Earning a living certainly is no problem for narrator Chase Insteadman. A washed-up child actor, prematurely superannuated, he's a midlife pretty boy afloat on residuals. Dimly aware of his surroundings and the urges and expectations of the people careening through his life, Insteadman is but flickeringly alive. He exhibits a kind of determined disinterest in engagement, literally as well as figuratively: his fiancée, Janice, is astronaut marooned in space with her glowering coterie of Russian cosmonauts by a Chinese orbital minefield. The tense crisis drags at the heartstrings of the public, and renews Chase's place in the public imagination, a second chance he endures with knowing befuddlement. Chase seems as lost in space as his intended, dependent on the arrival of her letters from space to fill him in on the forgotten details of their affair.
But Chase trips over a warp in his personal space-time continuum in the form of Perkus Tooth -- writer of CD cover copy, former culture-critic wunderkind, and one-time punk pamphleteering phenom, with a lazy right eye that seems to want "to discredit (his) whole sober aura with a comic jape." The professorial left eye fixes itself on Chase, however, and won't let go; and by degrees, Insteadman falls under the Tooth spell. Soon he's holed up in Perkus's rent-controlled redoubt at all hours watching obscure (and incidentally apocryphal) Werner Herzog films, listening while his host unleashes casuistic diatribes describing the undying brilliance of Marlon Brando, and consuming toxic quantities of marijuana -- the latter supplied by Perkus's dealer in lucite boxes labeled with varietal names to a evoke a cracked consumerism: Funky Monkey, Blueberry Kush.
Pot, in Perkus's world, is more than a balm or a mindblower; it's a kind of muse; as much as Perkus's compelling oddities, it attracts worshipful others into his orbit. In the reek of Perkus's apartment, Insteadman is subject to the gravitational attraction not only of Tooth but other bodies: an angularly sexy, self-loathing ghostwriter; a delusional former revolutionary-turned mayoral apparatchik; an ethereal, evanescent presence of a homeless man. Together they are locked in an embrace of eccentric orbits, doomed to circle one another for eternity in the void of the Upper East Side -- a social echo of Janice's exile beyond the atmosphere.
At the opening of this review, I called Chronic City's a subtle ambition because so much of the novel describes a series of languorous, pot-fueled hangout sessions -- in the background of which the machinery of paranoia and destruction implacably close in on Chase and his oblivious friends. Everywhere they turn they're met by false idols, beguiling, evocative, and empty. The New York Times is available in a "war-free edition"; an heiress dies and leaves a building of furnished apartments not for the homeless, but for stray dogs to live in. The southern end of the island is enveloped in a gray fog; its denizens come and go like ghosts, people of ash. Manhattanites churn up and down the stilled streets or through the empty corridors of power, seeking motivation or solace. In a Blakean touch, there's a "tiger" on the loose -- a monster of dubious provenance, perhaps mechanical, perhaps primordial, feeding on the city's infrastructure -- its nature and reality the subject of gossip and debate. Is it a real creature, a robotic earthmover run amok, or merely a hoax? But even this fantastic creature is for most a topic merely of remote and curious peril.
Novels, with their elaborately detailed other worlds, could be said to be modern culture's first attempt at virtual reality. But we somehow don't expect them to be able to handle the dislocations of digitally enhanced life. The universe in which text messages fling themselves from device to device, in which our avatars fly over metastatic landscapes of museums and sex clubs and crystalline shores, I've been told, is like a universal acid for the realm of fiction. But Lethem dramatizes that corrosive aspect of virtuality with diffuse precision, a kind of sleight of hand. The Internet is never named in Chronic City, but it's present as a source of obsession, endless distraction, and for some, brilliant success. Called Yet Another World, the virtual realm that catches the characters' fancy is no mere Second Life but one more in an infinite regression; once lives start budding and dividing like yeast cells, there's no stopping them.
But it's not just the wired life that causes dislocation -- words themselves are just as tricky. "All language seems this way," Chase observes late in the novel, "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. And yet I go around forming sentences." By this point in the novel, this is an unnervingly familiar evocation of the experience not only of language but the chronic city.
In the end, even nature -- the fleeting presence of which, in the form of a flock of birds or the keen senses of a dog, seemed like something of a still point -- proves an unsystematic system, a clamor of perspectives "satisfyingly continuous in their asymmetries and divergences." The aforementioned tiger, which for most of the novel looms at the edges of the action, begins toward the conclusion to strike -- a machina ex deum now mechanical, now burning bright with animal authenticity. It's but one of several ghosts in the machine, some called into being by one character or another, others haunting the works at their own bidding.
I'm familiar enough with some (by no means all) of the milieux Jonathan Lethem traverses -- virtual worlds habituated by science fiction mavens, comic impresarios, and punk rock scholars -- to believe in the syncretistic simulacrum he's built in Chronic City. The knowledge that ours are nested worlds is a postmodern convention; that we might learn to inhabit these circles-within-circles with all the energies of love and kindness arrives as a kind of wisdom, a discovery.
Chase Insteadman, for his part, makes his discoveries too late. Perkus slips down a wormhole. The truth about Chase's astronaut intended, Janice, when it emerges, is both shattering and more than slightly implausible. But plot machinations are not the heart of Chronic City, which in the midst of its grim evocations does the rarer work of dramatizing friendship's rare tenderness and bravery, its belated perfection. --Matthew Battles
Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History. He has written about language, technology, and history for such publications as The American Scholar, The Boston Sunday Globe, and Harper's.