Rolling stoned

Jonathan Lethem’s freewheeling Chronic City
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  November 4, 2009

Photo: Mara Faye Lethem
THE ANTI-MASTER? Jonathan Lethem.

Jonathan Lethem throws so many tricks, jokes, and ideas into Chronic City — the onomatopoetic and etymological allusions of his character names, the half-dozen or so conspiracy theories that motivate its plot, its surreal sci-fi setting, and its goofy social comedy — that the book, from a distance, sounds like an overstuffed mess. Instead, every new gambit is just another log on the roaring bonfire of his eighth novel. The ideas sizzle and glow, and his characters dance merrily around it.

In the opening chapters, you worry that Lethem (whose father, Richard Brown Lethem, is an art instructor at USM) may be mired in this shallow, culture-questioning rut of his last book, the shallow indie-rock comedy You Don’t Love Me Yet. After all, the book begins in the offices of the cult/classic film restoration company the Criterion Collection before getting around to tangents about Marlon Brando’s whereabouts and the import of a Second Life-style virtual society called Yet Another World.

At Criterion HQ, Chase Insteadman — a former child actor whose current, astronaut girlfriend is trapped in space after her shuttle drifts past an imposing array of Chinese space mines — encounters Perkus Tooth (slight of stature and lazy-eyed), a forgotten cultural critic whose rambling, paranoid discourses are sparked by pot-, burger-, and caffeine-fueled nights, which a bored Chase eagerly begins to take part in. (Lethem’s descriptions are so pungent and attuned to that specific conversational rhythm that the repetition of these scenes is no bother.)

The pair and their various associates (which come to include an ostrich-looking socialite named Georgina Hawkmanaji and a moody ghost autobiographer dubbed Oona Laszlo, among others) begin a quest to unearth the ultimate in amateur philosophical truths: Are our lives every bit the meaningless, puppetmastered journeys of Yet Another World’s online society? (And also: Is a giant tiger slowly destroying homes and businesses throughout the city, in order to subvert laws protecting rent-stabilized establishments?)

In navigating these and other tectonic questions, Lethem’s aristocrats and would-be intellectuals inhabit a surreal Manhattan, shaded with portents from a Philip K. Dick story: there are “War Free” editions of the New York Times, and an unmoving gray fog is cast over Wall Street. Familiar cultural references dance with slightly off-kilter ones, like The Gnuppet Show and a band called Chthonic Youth.

Lethem harnesses this unruly array of speculation and satire with fleet and unerringly graceful phrasing, twisting these sci-fi underpinnings into a social comedy of manners doused with contemporary satire. The book is grounded in the relationship between Chase and Perkus. Hapless but socially keen, Insteadman is drawn to the hermetic, societally inept Tooth, whose gonzo intellectualism restimulates Chase’s existence.

“Vapidly neutral,” Chase is a bemused and disaffected media sensation, sympathetic toward Perkus’s suspicions about a post-Giuliani (and, unavoidably, post-9/11) island: namely, that Manhattan is an “enactment,” an orchestrated and sanitized distraction from the outside world.

At the onset, Lethem makes the pair’s friendship a study in an odd couple’s reconciliation. Chase is keen to Manhattan’s social hierarchy and his (and Perkus’s) minor role in it, but Perkus is hermetic and isolated, a selective and contrarian culture junkie. His more drastic theories (Marlon Brando will soon be elected mayor) challenge Chase’s devotion to his new friend and his perception of Perkus’s sanity. Meanwhile, Perkus is dismayed by Chase’s mundane romantic dilemmas (“Have you ever found yourself exhausted by a friend whose problems simply never change?,” he rhetorically asks a dog) and general dimwittedness.

It’s Chase’s status as a media darling that transforms their friendship into something larger, though: a passing of the crown from the former kings of the island — the idiosyncratic, brilliant and absurd Perkus Tooths (or Mailers or Buckleys) — to the new leaders of society, the temporary celebrities who capture the hearts (if not the minds) of the zeitgeist.

But Chronic City is about the death of the social intellectual as much as it is about the lives of grown men who live and love like children, global warming, the commoditization of Manhattan, the dumbing of culture, or the meaning of life. None of these big themes become subservient to Lethem’s blatantly entertaining narrative (a delicate line his otherwise superlative The Fortress of Solitude had to toe laboriously at times). Chronic City is as breezy as a relevant literary novel can be, a subtly mind-expanding mash-up of Lethem’s disparate interests. It might just be his anti-masterpiece.

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Related: Tall tales, Review: Surrogates, Hello, Numan, More more >
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