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.