Pocket Review: Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

By Charlie Wendell

Lethem Yeah, so here’s my theory. Jonathan Lethem wrote Inherent Vice for Thomas Pynchon. In turn, Pynchon penned Chronic City for Lethem. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. After all, a prominent character here is Oona Laszlo, a woman who makes her living as a ghostwriter. Could this be a hint?

First off, the names are right out of Pynchon. Now, he doesn’t have a patent on peculiar handles, but Chase Insteadman? Richard Abneg (sure enough, he abnegates his own past)? Perkus Tooth? Come on now! When one guy in a publishing season is using names like that, cool. When there are two? Am I supposed to let this slide as a sort of homage/acknowledgement to Pynchon’s prowess in this area? Because I couldn’t read Perkus’ name without seeing one of those animated cartoon tooth decay characters so popular at one time. Then there’s the mysterious cloud of conspiracy/paranoia gripping Lethem’s New York. This takes the form of an escaped giant “tiger”—though it could just be a maverick construction wrecking crane. Whether this is an actual animal or a vision of unleashed urban renewal is anyone’s guess. I won’t hazard one. There’s also a “gray cloud” as well. Figure it out.

Chase Insteadman is the first-person narrator, a former child star living on his residuals. He’s adrift. His fiancée (maybe) is Janice Trumbull, an astronaut (maybe), who is stranded in space (maybe), and dying of cancer. She’s uh… drift. Meanwhile, Chase befriends Tooth. This actually seems to happen. They are simpatico. Tooth, who first appeared in a 2007 collection edited by Zadie Smith, The Book of Other People, is a manic, brilliant… what? Former rock critic (maybe), former ’60s street radical (probably), and more comfortable being a chorus to the activity around him. After his rent-controlled apartment is destroyed “by the tiger,” he ends up living in a dog hotel: a former apartment building that is now unfit for human habitation and is used to house homeless dogs, each with his or her own apartment. Volunteers stop in to walk and feed them. Tooth moves in with one. The dog gets a severe case of the hiccups; Tooth contracts them from the dog. This does not end well.

Lethem handles this with what I thought was a nice touch. At first, I thought there was a bad case of type justification going on. But no—those longer and longer spaces between words that appear near the end are the visual representation of Tooth’s hiccups. Reading those pages with mental hiccups was very effective. Fortunately, I didn’t contract the esophageal quirk myself. What I did contract was a case of mild irritation and the uncomfortable ennui of disappointment that can only come from reading a writer whom you’ve respected and expect more from.

Oh, for God’s sake. Let me just say it: Instead of being a Man, the narrator Chases the delusions and elusive Truths of Manhattan. And there you go, the entire book in a nutshell. Chronic City was a huge disappointment to me. Lethem is still one name-dropping, culture-referencing mother, but here it somehow goes awry. I loved The Fortress of Solitude—its scope was worth the unwieldy sprawl—and I was thrilled when I finally got around to reading Motherless Brooklyn. He was in my pantheon, but now he’s fallen from grace.

Near the end, Chase makes this observation on the dissolution of his friend, Perkus:

If his arguments were once brakeless vehicles he could ride a mile or two before veering into a ditch—a listener climbing aboard if they dared—now they seemed compacted on arrival in one of those junkyard car-crushing machines, recognizable for their former purpose but undrivable.

One could say the same about Lethem’s messy effort here. It’s not unreadable. I got through it with no problem, excepting that antsy maybe-I’m-wasting-my-time-here feeling. But it wasn’t pleasurable in the way his previous books have been.

After a stopoff in L.A. with the last novel, Lethem is back in his element and ready to have the arms of New York wrapped around him. He’s scheduled a marathon reading of this new one over the course of a few months in Manhattan and Brooklyn, which has to be good marketing. I hope it works well for him, but also that he comes back with a change-up next time.

Charlie Wendell is dedicated to the three R’s: Reading, Running and Rhapsodizing on the other two. He lives as close to Boston as he can reasonably afford.

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3 Comments to Pocket Review: Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

  1. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    November 4, 2009 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. May not be unreadable but doesn’t sound like my cuppa tea. [Hi Chazz!]

  2. November 5, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Great stuff, Charlie. Love your voice. Always have.
    I had a bad feeling about this one. Glad I held off ordering it.

  3. November 9, 2009 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    I think the publisher needs to be giving away, with every copy, a fatty of whatever they’re smoking in the book. It’s no fun to be the only straight person in the room.

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