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Chronic City (Lethem)

Chronic City 
Jonathan Lethem, 2009
Knopf Doubleday
467 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307277527


Summary
The acclaimed author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude returns with a roar with this gorgeous, searing portrayal of Manhattanites wrapped in their own delusions, desires, and lies.

Chase Insteadman, a handsome, inoffensive fixture on Manhattan's social scene, lives off residuals earned as a child star on a beloved sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancée, Janice Trumbull, is trapped by a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station, from which she sends him rapturous and heartbreaking love letters. Like Janice, Chase is adrift, she in Earth's stratosphere, he in a vague routine punctuated by Upper East Side dinner parties.

Into Chase's cloistered city enters Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning. Perkus's countercultural savvy and voracious paranoia draw Chase into another Manhattan, where questions of what is real, what is fake, and who is complicit take on a life-shattering urgency. Along with Oona Laszlo, a self-loathing ghostwriter, and Richard Abneg, a hero of the Tompkins Square Park riot now working as a fixer for the billionaire mayor, Chase and Perkus attempt to unearth the answers to several mysteries that seem to offer that rarest of artifacts on an island where everything can be bought: Truth.

Like Manhattan itself, Jonathan Lethem's masterpiece is beautiful and tawdry, tragic and forgiving, devastating and antic, a stand-in for the whole world and a placeutterly unique. (From the publisher.)




Author Bio
Birth—February 19, 1964
Where—Brooklyn, New York, USA
Education—Bennington College (no degree)
Awards—National Book Critics Circle Award; World Fantasy
   Award; Macallan Gold Dagger Award
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California


Jonathan Allen Lethem is an American novelist, essayist and short story writer. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a genre work that mixed elements of science fiction and detective fiction, was published in 1994. It was followed by three more science fiction novels. In 1999, Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel that achieved mainstream success. In 2003, he published The Fortress of Solitude, which became a New York Times Best Seller. In 2005, he received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Early life
Lethem was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Judith Frank Lethem, a political activist, and Richard Brown Lethem, an avant-garde painter. He was the eldest of three children. His father was Protestant (with Scottish and English ancestry) and his mother was Jewish, from a family that originated in Germany, Poland, and Russia. His brother Blake became an artist, and his sister Mara became a photographer and writer.

The family lived in a commune in the pre-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of North Gowanus (now called Boerum Hill). Despite the racial tensions and conflicts, he later described his bohemian childhood as "thrilling" and culturally wide-reaching. He gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the music of Bob Dylan, saw Star Wars twenty-one times during its original theatrical release, and read the complete works of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Lethem later said Dick’s work was "as formative an influence as marijuana or punk rock—as equally responsible for beautifully fucking up my life, for bending it irreversibly along a course I still travel."

His parents divorced when Lethem was young. When he was thirteen, his mother Judith died from a malignant brain tumor, an event which he has said haunted him and has strongly affected his writing. (Lethem discusses the direct relation between his mother and the Bob Dylan song "Like a Rolling Stone" in the 2003 Canadian documentary Complete Unknown.) In 2007, Lethem explained, "My books all have this giant, howling missing [center]—language has disappeared, or someone has vanished, or memory has gone."

Intending to become a visual artist like his father, Lethem attended the High School of Music & Art in New York, where he painted in a style he describes as "glib, show-offy, usually cartoonish." At Music & Art he produced his own zine, The Literary Exchange, which featured artwork and writing. He also created animated films and wrote a 125-page novel, Heroes, still unpublished.

After graduating from high school, Lethem entered Bennington College in Vermont in 1982 as a prospective art student. At Bennington, Lethem experienced an "overwhelming....collision with the realities of class—my parents’ bohemian milieu had kept me from understanding, even a little, that we were poor.... [A]t Bennington that was all demolished by an encounter with the fact of real privilege." This, coupled with the realization that he was more interested in writing than art, led Lethem to drop out halfway through his sophomore year.

He hitchhiked from Denver, Colorado, to Berkeley, California, in 1984, across "a thousand miles of desert and mountains through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, with about 40 dollars in my pocket," describing it as "one of the stupidest and most memorable things I've ever done." He lived in California for twelve years, working as a clerk in used bookstores, including Moe's and Pegasus & Pendragon Books, and writing on his own time. Lethem published his first short story in 1989 and published several more in the early 1990s.

First novels
Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, is a merging of science fiction and the Chandleresque detective story, which includes talking kangaroos, radical futuristic versions of the drug scene, and cryogenic prisons. The novel was published in 1994 to little initial fanfare, but an enthusiastic review in Newsweek, which declared Gun an "audaciously assured first novel," catapulted the book to wider commercial success. It became a finalist for the 1994 Nebula Award. In the mid-1990s, film producer-director Alan J. Pakula optioned the novel's movie rights, which allowed Lethem to quit working in bookstores and devote his time to writing.

His next several books include Amnesia Moon (1995), partially inspired by Lethem's experiences hitchhiking cross-country; The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (1996), a collection of short stories; As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) about a physics researcher who falls in love with an artificially generated spatial anomaly called "Lack."

Lethem moved returned to Brooklyn in 1996, after which he published Girl in Landscape (1998) about a world populated by aliens but "very strongly influenced" by the 1956 John Wayne Western The Searchers, a movie with which Lethem is "obsessed."

In 1999, he released Motherless Brooklyn, a return to the detective theme, with a protagonist suffering from Tourette syndrome and obsessed with language. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, The Macallan Gold Dagger for crime fiction, and the Salon Book Award, and was named book of the year by Esquire.

According to the New York Times, the mainstream success of Motherless Brooklyn made Lethem "something of a hipster celebrity," and he was referred to several times as a "genre bender." Lev Grossman of Time classed Lethem with a movement of authors similarly eager to blend literary and popular writing, including Michael Chabon (with whom Lethem is friends), Margaret Atwood, and Susanna Clarke.

In the early 2000s, Lethem published a story collection, edited two anthologies, wrote magazine pieces, and published the 55-page novella This Shape We're In (2000)—one of the first offerings from McSweeney's Books, the publishing imprint that developed from Dave Eggers' McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

In November 2000, Lethem said that he was working on an uncharacteristically "big sprawling" novel, about a child who grows up to be a rock journalist. The novel was published in 2003 as The Fortress of Solitude. The semi-autobiographical bildungsroman features a tale of racial tensions and boyhood in Brooklyn during the late 1970s.

Lethem's second collection of short fiction, Men and Cartoons, was published in late 2004. In a 2009 interview with Armchair/Shotgun, Lethem said of short fiction:

I'm writing short stories right now, that's what I do between novels, and I love them. I'm very devoted to it.... [T]he story collections I've published are tremendously important to me. And many of the uncollected stories—or yet-to-be-collected stories—are among my proudest writings. They're very closely allied, obviously, to novel writing. But also very distinct..

In 2005 Lethem released The Disappointment Artist, his first collection of essays, and in the same year he received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Mid-career novels
After Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem decided it "was time to leave Brooklyn in a literary sense anyway... I really needed to defy all that stuff about place and memory." In 2007, he returned—as a novelist—to California, where some of his earlier fiction had been set, with You Don't Love Me Yet, a novel about an upstart rock band. The novel received mixed reviews.

In early 2009, Lethem published Chronic City, set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The author claimed it was strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles G. Finney. and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and referred to it as "long and strange."

Lethem's next novel, Dissident Gardens, was in 2013. According to Lethem in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the novel concerns "American leftists," very specifically "a red-diaper baby generation trying to figure out what it all means, this legacy of American Communism." He considers it "another New York neighborhood book, very much about the life of the city.... [W]riting about Greenwich Village in 1958 was really a jump for me...as much of an imaginative leap as any of the more fantastical things I've done."

Personal life
In 1987, Lethem married the writer and artist Shelley Jackson; they were divorced by 1997. In 2000, he married Julia Rosenberg, a Canadian film executive; they divorced two years later.

Lethem's current wife is filmmaker Amy Barrett; the couple has a son. Lethem has relocated to Los Angeles, California, where he is the Disney Professor of Writing at Pomona College in Claremont. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/17/2013.)

Book Reviews
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 hits—yes, for you potheads, Chronic is his favorite brand—and 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 (A Signature Review)
Publishers Weekly

"Behind the illusion there's nothing" spills forth from the ramblings of Perkus Tooth—Lethem's latest in a line of colorful characters—and succinctly captures the essence of the author's eighth novel. Set in Manhattan, the story focuses on an unusual friendship between Perkus, a wayward cultural critic with a penchant for marijuana and conspiracies, and former child actor Chase Insteadman. Holed up in Perkus's clapboard apartment, the duo try to weave together the chaotic events occurring in the city by way of virtual worlds, ghostwriters, and Marlon Brando. The stunning and unexpected conclusion calls into question whether the two are casual observers of the elaborate ruse or its central characters. Verdict: As with his other novels, the pleasure of this work is derived from the inventiveness of Lethem's characters and his verbal dexterity in description. Although the novel is slow to gain momentum, fans of Lethem's work (e.g., Motherless Brooklyn) will be rewarded for their patience with insight into the truthfulness of reality. —Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
Library Journal


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 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 to interpretation, 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).
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. When do you think the action of the novel occurs? Is there a reason the time was left vague? Is this the "real" New York City?

2. At what point did you begin to suspect that Chase Insteadman was living a fiction? At what point in their story do you think Perkus Tooth understood that Chase had been deceived about his role?

3. Can you accept that Oona Laszlo is responsible for the letters attributed to Janice Trumbull? Is it possible, as a writer, to create another human being more generous, large-hearted, and responsive than yourself?

4. What is the meaning of the wild animals that intrude on the lives of these Manhattanites—the eagles, the tiger? Do they have anything to do with the weather?

5. Have you ever felt that the place where you lived or grew up was being turned into a 'simulacrum' of itself?

6. Have you ever tried to care for someone impossible? Are you now? Does Perkus Tooth remind you of anyone in your own life, or did you find Chase's decision to befriend him misguided?

7. At different points in Chronic City, Perkus Tooth seems to attempt to sustain himself completely on culture and language, then, alternately, to try to leave culture and language entirely behind and live a "pure" life. Do you think either approach is possible?

8. The author's working title forChronic City was "Manhattan". The Woody Allen film by that name was often criticized for depicting a Manhattan consisting only of the white upper middle class. Is Chronic City self-aware about the limitations of its characters? Does Chase Insteadman's response to the black kids he meets near the Urban Fjord, or to the black man in the jail cell imply another version of Manhattan creeping into view?

9. What does the gray fog hide?

10. Was Chase unfair to Oona? Should he give her another chance?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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