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Lethem's Novel proves 'Chronic'

"Chronic City" by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday)

Cobwebs of conspiracy, visible only by glimpses of light filtered through the haze of pot smoke, bind fast the decadent and insular isle of Manhattan in Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel, “Chronic City.” The protagonist, Chase Insteadman—a former child star living off re-run residuals—serves as both one of a cohort of sleuths trying to untangle these webs and a vessel for the reader’s own desire to do the same. His seemingly infinite naïveté parallels our own; his paranoia is ours; and when revelations unfold, they’re for us, not just Chase. But in spite of this gambit, and the inherent ambition behind any setting as complex as this one, Lethem spoon-feeds the reader tropes from contemporary literature instead of developing anything uniquely satisfying, rendering “Chronic City” otherwise insubstantial.

The novel begins as Insteadman’s meets one Perkus Tooth, an aging, roving-eyed rock critic and strikingly disparate figure whose hovel on 84th street provides the setting for much of the rest of the story. Tooth serves as the wellspring for the paranoia that motivates much of the book, and brokers Chase’s introduction to the other major players, Oona Laszlo and Richard Abneg.

Chase and Tooth shortly develop a fast, if strange friendship defined by Perkus’ love for marijuana, cheeseburgers, coffee, and esoterica. Their daily smoke sessions serve an indoctrinatory function as well: Tooth enmeshes both Chase and the reader in the interconnections between things as seemingly disparate as Marlon Brando, “Gnuppets” (cf. Muppets), and the redemption of New York City at large. The level of associations starts small at first, focusing on relations between obscure film directors and their actors. As the plot progresses, however, the associations link one into another until they ensnare the entire world of the novel.

Insteadman splits his time between Manhattan’s high society, where he is a fixture more for his headline-garnering astronaut fiancée—Janice Trumbull, whose reentry to earth is blocked by Chinese space mines—than for his good looks or former stardom. Its here that he meets Abneg, a mayor’s aide who recognizes Chase as a disciple of Perkus and helps to close the gap between the foggy reality of 84th street and the rest of the world.

Laszlo is a cynical and withdrawn ghostwriter who fully cinches the two realms. Her character fuels the notion that everything is merely a façade through her work, her observations, and her dalliances with Chase.

Lethem’s strengths as a writer keep the book moving along at a brief and exciting clip. His prose is always evocative and his diction breathes life into his characters and their surroundings. “If one of money’s laws is that it can never buy taste, here is where it went after it failed, and here’s what it brought instead,” writes Lethem of Manhattan. The narrative flow, dictated almost entirely by Chase—save for a few exceedingly emotive letters penned by his spacey fiancée and a few events that occur on the periphery of his story—is dimpled with beautifully concise and vivid encapsulations of the utterly mundane and the extraordinary alike.

The letters Janice writes to Chase, for example, as the length of her space stay drives her slowly zanier, are worth falling in love over. The detailed precision of her reminiscences delicately counter the truly heartfelt and heartbreaking sentiments she struggles with at other moments. “I see only myself and a shimmer beside me, you’re nothing now but an urgent elusive talisman, an object glimpsed but unseen, a fish’s lure in the deep, a reason to go on living. And I do that, Chase. At someone’s command, and I prefer to believe it is yours, my friend, I go on living,” she closes one letter.

The third person narrative structure of the book is also one of its strengths. Being bound by the stupidity of Chase, the invested reader will chomp at the bit for more and more information, but Lethem holds fast to his kernels of truth until their revelation is all the more satisfying. Every detail of the book gains retrospective significance as the puzzle pieces slowly sort themselves into place, making it almost necessary to read the book at least twice. There are very few discontinuities, and those that exist don’t hurt the text in any way.

But Lethem’s aptitude with the pen has never been in question. A winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel “Motherless Brooklyn,” he has already established himself as an elite member of the community of American fiction. Where “Chronic City” falters is in its failure to adequately deal with its own extra-textual subtext.

Wild animals are a repeated motif throughout the novel. A tiger that may or may not actually be some sort of digging machine rampages through the city, destroying whole buildings and causing general inconvenience. A pair of bald eagles seem to hunt Abneg, and at one point, a whale makes its way up the East River nearly to Hell’s Gate before dying.

This motif seems to speak in general to the control or lack thereof wielded by the invisible powers-that-be behind most of the action in the book. But some of the discrete animal appearances may just be references to contemporary news coverage—the eagles could refer to a hawk problem New York City faced not too long ago, and a polar bear on an ice floe may also have a cultural analogue. The whale, in particular, seems to also imply another question, especially when paired with a reference to “Moby Dick” later on in the work—a question about the future of the American novel and its past. Yet Lethem offers no discernable answers, and trying to disassemble his pastiche of cultural references isn’t worth half the effort he clearly put into creating it.

“Chronic City” prevails as a captivating and enjoyable piece of fiction, but if Lethem intended it to be as meta-analytical and thought-provoking as the glimpses of this material might suggest, he certainly fails to get his point across in any meaningful way.

—Staff writer Joshua J. Kearney can be reached at kearney@fas.harvard.edu.
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