by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, New York, 2009
1. Under the Influence.
Life is unreal. Everything is a commodity, including love and enlightenment. We are our own avatars. Everything is connected. Everybody must get stoned.
Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, Chronic City, is set in the unreal parallel universe of the Upper East Side, an almost-Manhattan that is a simulacrum of the real city. The anti-hero of Chronic City is Chase Insteadman, an everyman/cipher/former child-star who lives off the royalties from his '80's sit-com Martyr and Pesty, and decorates the parties of the wealthy and entitled of New York. Here's what Chase says about himself:
My distinction (if there is one) lies in the helpless and immersive extent of my empathy. I'm truly a vacuum filled by the folks I'm with, and vapidly neutral in their absence. (121)Insteadman strikes up an unlikely friendship with Perkus Tooth, a dapper-yet-rumpled writer with a roving eye (literally) who once wrote for Rolling Stone and now tries to make sense of the world through a combination of constant use of powerful varieties of marijuana and tracing the connections between obscure pop culture phenomena. Tooth suffers from cluster headaches, is obsessed with Marlon Brando and Gnuppets, survives on cheeseburgers, and rescues Insteadman from his lonely simulated existence.
2. Lost in Space.
Chase Insteadman is simultaneously attached and unattached. His fiancee, Janice Trumbull, is an astronaut trapped in an endless orbit by Chinese space mines. Janice writes public letters to Chase, which are published in the New York Times, adding to his value as a dinner guest. That Chase can only vaguely remember what Janice looks like doesn't trouble him much. What is troubling is Oona Laszlo, the ghostwriter Insteadman falls for. The fiction of Insteadman's undying loyalty to his lost-in-space fiancee trumps the hands-all-over-each-other fact of Oona and Chase.
3. Everything is a symbol. Unless it's an allusion.
There is a gray fog over the financial district. It's 2008, but the twin towers are there. A tiger has escaped from the zoo, and no one can catch it. Maybe the tiger isn't real. Maybe it is. Whole buildings disappear. The smell of chocolate lingers in the air; no one knows where it comes from.
Perkus lived as much inside a conundrum as he did a city. At any given moment the conundrum presented itself in some outward form, a vessel or a symbol. (340)
4. It's dangerous to wake someone from a dream.
The characters in Chronic City are living in a simulated world. But maybe everyone is. Whoa.
....don't rupture another's illusion unless you're positive the alternative you offer is more worthwhile than that from which you're wrenching them. (341)
5. This book is impossible to summarize. The best part is the end, which I can't tell you about. The middle sags terribly. The most lovable character in the book is a dog. Much of the novel is brilliantly written but seems to be about fake people in a fake universe. Then at the end fakeness and realness sort of come together in ways I can't explain because that would be one gigantic spoiler.
6. What can I tell you, folks? This book is for people who like this book. Lethem is brilliant, and his writing has an all-holds-barred comic-book energy that this review doesn't convey. If you like big, allusion-filled. intelligent and witty books that comment on the big structures of our world, this book might be for you. At 467 pages, the momentum is not entirely sustainable, and the book gets bogged down in the middle. The last 40 pages pull the reader back up out of a dazed slump and make this big, baggy book worth the investment, but only if you like this sort of thing, which I suspect many people won't. Then again, for Lethem afficianados, this may be intellectual catnip. I would love to hear what other readers think, both of Lethem in general, and this book specifically.
For a little peek at Lethem's sense and sensibility, here's a link to his essay "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism." The entire essay is constructed of quoted or paraphrased sentences.