Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

The Tournament of Books snubbed this novel, but I am glad to have read it anyway. While Chronic City will not become a favorite novel of mine, likely will ultimately not make my Final Four of 2009 (as in published in 2009), Lethem is an incredibly talented author and refreshingly original. He packs intelligence into every paragraph and, for that reason alone, is worth reading. This is a decidedly minor work in his oeuvre, however.

Chronic City feels like a tip of the hat to Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49. The characters have names like Chase Insteadman, Oona Lazlo, Perkus Tooth, Laird Noteless, Strabo Blandiana, and Georgina Hawkmanaji (“The Hawkman”). Marlon Brando is a key (offstage) figure. The novel Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker is quite important. The main characters become enthralled by chaldrons, a “gargantuan escaped tiger” and nesting eagles wreak havoc on the island (Manhattan), a minor character earns his money in “Yet Another World” (a virtual reality game ala Second Life), the Friendreth Society has set up an apartment building housing (officially) only dogs including a pit bull with a chronic case of hiccups, and one or more of the characters may or may not be a target, a fake, a dupe, a mark, an actor, or something else entirely. Puzzles, cultural references (both veiled and explicit), inside jokes, and questions about reality permeate the underlying story. If you like Pynchon, you will like this book. If not, maybe not.

I can only guess at how many cultural references I missed. Some are easy: Ralph Warden Meeker and his opus Obstinate Dust is an obvious reference to David Foster Waller and his opus Infinite Jest. The Gnuppets are the Muppets. Others take a little more digging: Florian Ib directed The Gnuppet Movie in Chronic City, while Frank Oz directed The Muppets Take Manhattan in what we call reality. And, of course, some references passed by me entirely unnoticed. It is a well-done and detailed literary Where’s Waldo?

Lethem is not content to simply pack the book with cultural references, silly names, and bizarre occurrences, he has something more to say. And he says it well. Lethem’s skill with a pen is unquestionable. The book is filled with beautiful lines, perfectly attuned to the story, such as this from a subway:

Riders sat with coats loosened, nodding in rhythm to earbuds or just the robot’s applause of wheels locating seems in ancient track.

The book opens with Chase Insteadman, the primary narrator, describing his first meeting with Perkus Tooth. For the astute, the warnings come early:

I first met Perkus Tooth in an office. Not an office where he worked, though I was confused about this at the time. (Which is itself hardly an uncommon situation, for me.)

Perkus is a reclusive former rock critic who used to put up broadsheets all around New York. When Chase meets him, he lives in a cramped apartment filled with books, videotapes, and miscellaneous detritus. He has a ready and regular supply of pot. He will often go on long rants about directors and films and conspiracies. He has a wandering right eye. Cluster migraines plague him, but he is also blessed by what he calls periods of ellipsis, or moments of extreme clarity.

Despite his oddities, Perkus has collected a number of loyal friends. Some, like Chase, follow. Others, like Richard Abneg, act as protectors. Chase, the former child star, is drawn into Perkus’s world and glimpses the sublime beauty of paranoia:

I once heard Perkus Tooth say that he’d woken that morning having dreamed an enigmatic sentence: “Paranoia is a flower in the brain.”…Yet I hadn’t understood what the words meant to him until now…That was when I saw the brain’s flower. Perkus had, I think, been trying to prepare me for how beautiful it was.

The question, of course, is to resolve the problem of who is paranoid and who is onto an actual conspiracy. The bulk of the novel is told by Chase and, therefore, we are limited by his own lack of knowledge and awareness. But Perkus is the charismatic center of the novel. The reader, no less than Chase, is drawn to him. The man is very bright, but possibly unhinged. Chase is both in awe and protective.

When confronted with “simulated worlds theory” by Oona Laszlo, Perkus is at first miffed. He does not like being one-upped in intellectual conversations. He discounts the theory as the common philosophical idea that “we could be living in a gigantic computer simulation unawares”. Oona is undeterred, pointing out that it is a virtual certainty that “we’re just one of innumerable universes living in parallel”. Which, of course, brings to mind The Fabric of Reality (a book I must review now) and the theory of the multiverse.

Oona goes on to suggest that the computing power required to run infinitely regressing simulations would require too much energy and, at some point, whoever was running the simulation would shut it down. Perkus eventually follows the logic down a Leibnitzian rabbit hole, concluding:

If…the simulators only trouble to put stuff where we’re going to look at it, then the amount of effort and energy is exactly the same.

Perkus, then, believes there is nothing inside a book in the library, for instance, until someone picks it up and starts reading it. Everything is illusion and only becomes real when a conscious being interacts with it. This side discussion is a minor detail, except to the extent that the primary theme of the novel is separating fiction from reality. You need not be current on your theoretical physics, but Lethem is smart enough to interest you if you are.

The mystery, the chaldrons, Perkus are the draw. The characters are the ones concerned with determining whether life is an infinite jest or if we are all merely obstinate dust. Or perhaps there is no difference between those choices.

15 Responses to Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

  1. Kerry, if “this is a decidedly minor work in his oeuvre” what would you recommend as a major work, for someone like me who has not read any Lethem yet?

  2. I too am contemplating Lethem, but it won’t be this one. I’m leaning toward The Fortress of Solitude since reviews indicate it is somewhat less obscured by insider references.

  3. Kerry says:

    Anna,

    The Fortress of Solitude is on my TBR this year. It is generally considered his masterpiece (at least thus far). If you want his best, than that’s the one.

    I would suggest Motherless Brooklyn as a better starting point than Chronic City. I think Motherless Brooklyn is the more accessible, more fully realized, and more entertaining work. Motherless is an unconventional detective story whose main character has Tourette’s. It is a very good book and a great place to start if you want to start with an introduction rather than a magnum opus.

    Kevin,

    If you do read The Fortress of Solitude, I will be looking forward to comparing notes. I have not read it yet, but as I said above, it is on my 2010 TBR (and I own it, so it has a great shot). Plus, I have read a number of Lethem’s stories and simply love his writing. Chronic City confirms his talent for prose, Motherless his talent for the novel, so I am looking forward to his masterpiece.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Kerry. I’ll put The Fortress of Solitude on the next order list. And if I like it, I will back up to Motherless in Brooklyn. As you know, I am interested in novels that attempt to capture New York (and the other boroughs) and I am hoping these will add to the experience. And I am not expecting anything half as good as Edith Wharton. :-)

  5. Thanks for the recommendation, Kerry.

  6. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    It is always good to keep expectations as low as possible. Lethem is very much a New York writer in these books (and Chronic City). Also, has Max (Pechorin’s Journal) recommended Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer? He reviewed it recently. I haven’t read it, but I do recommend Dos Passos generally.

    Anna,

    I hope you find a Lethem you enjoy. I think he is one of the best writers currently working. (Admittedly, this opinion was formed without reading his best. But that is how good he is, I think.)

  7. Wilson Knut says:

    Thanks for this review. Fortress of Solitude is my favorite Lethem book so far because it is so original, although I have read several reviews that rip it on other aspects. Motherless Brooklyn is also a good read, but it is a little “gimmicky.”

  8. Kerry says:

    You are very welcome, Wilson. I am looking forward to Fortress of Solitude and your comment gives me more reason to do so. If you admire Lethem’s writing, Chronic City is a good follow up. It is original in its own way too, though I find most of his writing is original.

    If you read this one, please drop back by to let me know what you think (and point me to your review).

    Thanks for the comment.

  9. Jan says:

    boys & girls,

    I read the overwelming obstinate dust and I liked it.
    You don’t need a Marlon Brando if you know he’s death meath.

    Welcome in Manhattan

  10. gary says:

    “generally considered his masterpiece”

    why do people talk about literature this way?

    • Kerry says:

      Because when people ask which of an author’s books to read, it makes sense to highlight which of that author’s books is considered by most to be that author’s best and, in Lethem’s case, his best is considered by many, and probably most, a “masterpiece”.

      But you already knew that, of course, which suggests another question with an equally obvious answer.

  11. raven2278 says:

    I liked your review. It’s strange but reading Chronic city I didn’t make the connection with Pynchon and yet the novel I’ve read before this one was actually Inherent Vice. However, now that you’re talking about it, it becomes obvious how Lethem has been inspired by Pynchon. I think I was more focused about finding connections with other genX writers such as Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney and I missed the one with Pynchon. Anyway, I really loved the novel, from one chapter to another I never knew what to expect, It was surprising and different from other “New York” contemporary novels I’ve read.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks for dropping in and sharing your thoughts. I am sure I missed connections to many of the authors you cite. I have not read Easton Ellis or McInerney, so any such references would have gone over my head. I definitely agree that Chronic City was a refreshingly new take on “New York” novels.

      By the way, on that last subject, Teju Cole’s PEN/Faulkner-winning Open City is another New York novel, if you like such things. It is far more subdued than Chronic City (many comparisons to Sebald), but I thought it was very, very good.

      • raven2278 says:

        Thanks for the advice, It has not been released in France yet but it does sound interesting. What do you mean by “subdued” though? It’s actually the first time I encounter this word and I’m not sure of its meaning…

      • Kerry says:

        By “subdued”, I mean it is quiet rather than loud. Chronic City has lots of energy, Open City is more contemplative. The main character walks around the city thinking for much of the book. It is very interesting and, to me, enjoyable, but Open City has much less action than Chronic City.

        Teju Cole is a new author, but he has won at least one major award so far. Hopefully, this increases the chances of seeing his book in France sooner rather than later.

        Thanks again for dropping in.

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