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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chronic City

Book three of the Ten Best Books of 2009, as chosen by the New York Times Book Review, is Chronic City, a novel by Jonathan Lethem. I'm fairly familiar with his work, as this is the fourth novel of his I've read. He's a writer who has roots in speculative fiction--his Gun, With Occasional Music is a noir book featuring anthropomorphic animals; Motherless Brooklyn is a detective novel with the hero being a private eye with Tourette's syndrome, and his best book, Fortress of Solitude, skirts the world of comic-book superheroes and rock criticism.

Chronic City is in a similar vein. It is set in a very real place--the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but Lethem's New York is an alternate one. There may be a Jewish billionaire mayor, but there is also a tiger on the loose, an odor of chocolate permeates the air, the lower tip of the island is shrouded in a perpetual fog, and The New York Times publishes a "war-free" edition.

Into this alternate reality Lethem has created some characters who also seem just slightly out of whack, and in a Pynchonesque manner he has given them bizarre names. The narrator through much of the book is the relatively normal-named Chase Insteadman, a former child actor who is now living an idle existence, going to parties and hobnobbing with the glitterati. He is in a long line of bland narrators, a Nick Carraway for the twenty-first century. He describes himself thusly: "I may as well acknowledge I function as an ornament to dinner parties. There's something pleasant about me. I skate on frictionless ball bearings of charm, convey a middling charisma that threatens no one." He is also universally sympathized with because his fiancee is an astronaut who is stranded on the International Space Station and sends him love letters as she slowly dies.

As the book begins he meets the improbably-named Perkus Tooth, his Gatsby, a culture critic who lives a bizarre life of marinating in his own ideas and conspiracies. He became famous by putting up broadsides throughout the city, and then wrote a column for Rolling Stone, but he spurns the rock critic tag. He has obsessions with Marlon Brando, the "Gnuppets" (presumably the alternate version of the Muppets), the type-face of the New Yorker and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. He is a whirlwind of tics and pop-culture effluvia, and while an inspired creation he is ultimately an inauthentic one, as I had trouble believing such a person could exist and a bigger trouble caring about him. Chase and the circle of friends surrounding him seem to do nothing but worry about him, and I wondered what the fuss was all about. Tooth attracts a lot of filial devotion, but doesn't much return any.

As I said, there are a lot of funny names and bizarre occupations. Chase has an affair with a ghostwriter named Oona Laszlo. Other names include Strabo Blandovia (a Romanian acupuncturist), Laird Noteless (a sculptor who has built a fjord of garbage uptown), and Sandee Zapping, who works in an apartment complex for abandoned dogs (each dog gets its own unit). There is a character named Russ Grinspoon who seems a thinly-veiled slam at Art Garfunkel, and one wonders what he did to Lethem to deserve such enmity. All of this has a distancing effect, which I wonder if Lethem intends.

Though the book is emotionally distant, there is some brilliant turning of phrase. I kvelled at a description of Oona and Noteless as "the bird perched on the alligator's fang," and has any writer ever wrung more out of a snowfall: "The first globs had begun drifting to earth three hours before the mayor's party, not so much flakes as frost-spun jigsaw chunks rotating themselves into view as if an invisible examiner were hoping to puzzle them together on arrival. None of these were pure six-pointed specimens, those famously symmetrical and fingerprint-unique ski-chalet wallpaper darlings, instead rough amalgams of three or four or six that had clotted together somewhere above the city, assembling into eerie contours, snow-cartoon images of docking spacecraft or German coffeemakers or shattered Greek statuary. This advance wave melted so smoothly it was as though ghosts slid through the wet pavement's screen to some realm below. Then, abruptly, the stuff quadrupled and began to lodge, the ghosts denied entry to the subterranean world, too many to welcome there, their bodies heaping uselessly against the former portal." Whew! Perhaps Lethem harbors a secret desire to be a weatherman.

The names may remind one of Thomas Pynchon, but other aspects of the book resemble the work of Tom Robbins. Tooth is obsessed not only with Marlon Brando, who may or may not be dead, but also with chaldrons, a kind of ceramic vase that he compulsively bids for on eBay. These obsessions, as in Robbins (think of the Camel cigarette package in Still Life With Woodpecker) take on mystical qualities. Unlike Robbins, though, Lethem doesn't inject the same degree of whimsy into the tale, instead every detail seems weighted with false import. The book ends, cleverly enough, with a reveal that tells us much of what we assumed is not true, and upon closing the book you may experience a "but what did it all mean?" feeling. I have no answer.

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