Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City

I had to return this book to the library, so I’m flying without a net, but here’s what I thought.

Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel takes us back to familiar territory: the mysteries of Manhattan and the transcendent power of popular culture. Sure, it doesn’t really have any plot or characters, but I’m one of those readers who doesn’t mind as long as the author gives you something else to think about.

This is ostensibly the story of Chase Insteadman, a former child star all grown up. He’s dating an astronaut trapped on a space station. Her love letters home have become a news sensation, and have made him a star all over again. Chase falls in with a coterie of oddballs: Perkus Tooth, a film critic and creature of peculiar obsessions; Oona Lazlo, a cold, prolific ghostwriter; and Richard Abneg, a former squatter’s rights advocate who now fights for the opposing team in the mayor’s office. The majority of the book consists of this group hanging out, smoking pot, listening to music and eating deluxe cheeseburgers. That’s what critics mean when they say it doesn’t have a plot. But if you’re the kind of person who stays up all night talking about nothing, or is nostalgic for those days, these sections emanate light and heat. Meanwhile, the city around them grows stranger. A pea soup fog descends over the financial district. A giant tiger escapes from the zoo and wreaks havoc. An environmental artist produces an urban fjord. In other words, this is the kind of book that predictably warrants the wrath of Kakutani.

Admittedly, none of these characters are all that fleshed out. Chase, who narrates most of the novel, seems deliberately, infuriatingly empty (those who have read the book might characterize him as chaldronic–see below). But the four characters work well as a refraction of the contemporary psyche. Chase is an actor in more ways than one. He privately questions his affections for his astronaut girlfriend, but finds himself impersonating a grieving lover at dinner parties. How can you be sincere when you don’t know your own feelings? Perkus, pontificator of curiosities, stands in for everyone who wonders about the true utility of their hobbies and obsessions. Oona is a hardworking hack, which has a familiar barb to knowledge workers everywhere. And Richard performs the difficult navigation between idealism and realpolitik.

Eventually the smoke clears and something like a main story comes into view. Perkus becomes obsessed with a vase-like object called a chaldron. When gazes upon a chaldron (or even a picture of a chaldron) it reveals the falsity of the real world. Chaldrons are the latest in a line of objects that, for Perkus, serve as reliquaries. These sections are Lethem’s best-yet articulation of what it means to escape into popular culture. We seize onto objects, for our own idiosyncratic reasons, because they seem to reveal something about the world that’s been buried and hidden. And yet, these objects are common currency, out in the open for just about anyone to see. People know who Marlon Brando is, have a sense of his importance as an actor, and have at least watched The Godfather. But when Brando comes face to face with reality, reality flinches, briefly. People spend the rest of their lives searching for those moments of upheaval, hoping that next time, it’s permanent. But pop culture is kind of like Penelope; it unravels its work at night, simulating and exposing at different turns.

A minor caveat. The book does lapse into some 9/11ish NYarcissism, lamenting that no one else can understand the special pain of what it’s like to live in a city under attack, when nothing can be further than the truth. But I can forgive it, because otherwise the book looks outward to ours. The strange things happening in the New York of Chronic City don’t see so strange when they’re applied to our world. Our newspapers print “war-free” editions in everything but name, Wall St. has lost contact with the rest of the world, and fantasies forcibly assert themselves in reality.


2 Responses to “Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City”

  1. 1 Ben Beard January 15, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Hi, Luke.

    I don’t know. I just don’t know. Lethem has style. He’s smart. He’s capable. He’s clever. He’s blessed with a surfeit of cash and ideas. He’s ambitious. He’s prolific.

    But, I just don’t know. Let’s take a look.

    Amnesia Moon is a massacre. A terrible book.
    Fortress of Solitude took the conceit of a comic book but dropped all the enjoyment and wild manic energy, resulting in a stilted book about hip hop and masturbation and a cartoonist’s obsession.
    As She Climbed Across the table is diverting, but slight.
    You don’t love me yet (?) was a miserable waste of his time, overhyped, and instantly forgotten.

    Which more or less brings us to Chronic City.

    I had it from the library and had to return it before I finished. It was good. I give you that, what I read was good. But, I just don’t know. I’ve been reading Roberto Bolano. Everything translated in English to date. I’ve been reading John Cheever. I’ve been reading John O’Hara.

    I get the sense that Lethem is more smoke than mirror. I don’t know if he’s going to make the cut.

    Oh, well. Short message. I’m enjoying your blog.


  1. 1 The Week in Consumption, 11.30 « Against Acedia Trackback on November 30, 2009 at 12:58 pm

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