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)
"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
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).
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