Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. Vintage. 480pp, $15.95.
There’s no doubt that Jonathan Lethem is a very talented writer. He has the knack for sentences that are fun to read and that convey a quick intelligence, compelling without, generally, distracting the reader from the tale itself. Each of the three novels of his I’ve read impressed me with its grasp of particulars, presenting a world charged with the verisimilitude of standard genres—a kind of neighborhood noir in Motherless Brooklyn (1999), an interracial coming-of-age tale in The Fortress of Solitude (2003), and a postmodern fantasia in Chronic City (2009)—while maintaining a quirky intention without being unduly self-referential (or self-reverential). These are books that aspire to more than an entertaining read.
I can’t say they entirely succeed. The sense of meaningful implication seems more willful than actual. We get a more or less satisfying exploration of the material, but we never get a sense of an abyss to be reckoned with, or of areas of invention that require more than simple good storytelling chops. Instead we get gimmicks. In Motherless, Lionel Essrog’s Tourette syndrome was the gimmick, Lethem seeming to want to foreground the possibility of verbal play and slippage in narrative while shackling it to an actual imitative effect. But one could always just skip the verbal tics and get on with the story, which wouldn’t be the case with wordplay that was more essential to the meaning of the work. In Fortress, the magic realism in the later section of the novel seemed forced, ersatz—again, a device not integral to the incredibly vivid recreation of Brooklyn, nor of characters who, while not surprisingly original, were at least very recognizable. The novel, one suspects, went where it went because Fortress, like many entertainments in fiction and film, pursued drama and action—make something happen!—at the expense of character and coherence.
Which leads us to Chronic City, Lethem’s most satisfying novel to date because, after all, a postmodern fantasia should make explicit what perhaps has been Lethem’s underlying assumption all along: that characters are tics of narrative, devices that can be made to act out whatever the author chooses to explore. And so the gimmick this time is a fiction within a fiction: Jane Trumbull, an astronaut stranded in space, sending her glib epistles to her amiably drifting fiancé, former child star—and our narrator—Chase Insteadman, the latter unaware he is enacting a more or less scripted scenario. Add to that the further gimmick of Yet Another World, a computer simulation of life with talismanic treasures called chaldrons that are taken for real objets d’art to be coveted. Yet Another World causes the characters to contemplate the extent to which the life they assume to be real might be a simulation.
The problem, [as stated by Oona, Chase's erotic counterpart] is that our own simulated reality might only be allowed to continue if it were either informative or entertaining enough to be worth the computer power.
A self-referential way of saying that readers will only keep reading if the tale is worth the candle.
In brief, some of the plot elements in Chronic City seem to derive from the old argument whereby the realist task of revealing character through the unraveling of plot and action was undermined or overwhelmed by the modernist sense of characters as figurative constructs at the mercy or the mockery of the author’s code of figuration. This approach eventually gave way to the postmodern author’s sense of figuration as a device constructing the very notion of narrative, so that our stories are already encoded by an omnipresent culture they can’t help but replicate, but which they can manipulate and—a much used word—subvert, or, a phrase even more ubiquitous, “call into question.” In this scheme, the savvy novelist is always pointing at the received nature of his textual constructs—a genre like noir, for instance, or comic books, so enthusiastically incorporated into Motherless and Fortress respectively. To move beyond such gestures to interrogate the structure of received constructs shows that Lethem is of the moment with its ubiquitous Baudrillardian replication, but it’s also the case that, to his credit, Lethem doesn’t offer Matrix-like simulation anxiety as his main point. Rather, Chronic City seems to take upon itself the baggage of postmodernism—as a cultural dominant in the closing decades of the twentieth century—while aiming to tell a story with good old objective correlatives.
With its sci-fi or fantasy elements—a huge tiger roaming the streets of New York, and Janice’s space station “Perils of Pauline” travails—and its pop-realist elements—like idiosyncratic cultural critic and former broadsider Perkus Tooth’s knowing references to pet nuggets like The Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” or real and fictitious Marlon Brando films—Chronic City seems aimed to give us a narrative in which anything is possible and anything might be a reference. The novel deliberately runs along the byways of drugged logic (most of the main characters partake of picturesquely named varieties of marijuana, such as Ice and Blueberry Kush and, of course, Chronic), presented to us in what Perkus calls “ellipses,” denoting a personally relevant connection. Perkus’ elliptical thinking hearkens back to the Joycean sense of epiphany as “a memorable phase of the mind itself,” a moment of insight that reveals a pattern or an effect set apart from the common run of inattentive interactions, while also incorporating a bit of the Pynchonian sense “that EVERYTHING is connected.”
In other words, Lethem is assuming his reader already knows the Joycean/Pynchonian drill and is playing cute with it, but he’s also, arguably, trying to delineate something deliberately less grandiose, something closer to what Chronic City is actually about: how to find a way of remaining faithful to the contemporary world without losing all dignity, hope, sense of worth, and ability to interact with others in a mutually pleasurable fashion. Or: how should a novel deal with an era of resolute bad faith without recourse to “mythic method,” paranoid logic, or opting out of the culture through some resistant or dissident posture—such as the comical slogan “Les Non-Dupes refusés,” offered as a sort of mantra without much more effect than a T-shirt or bumper-sticker has in proclaiming the status of belligerent disbelief in the collective lie? (On that score, Perkus’ fulminations against the New York Times and the New Yorker are not only amusing but also indicative—I found myself thinking, “I hear ya, man”).
Chronic City is Lethem’s Manhattan novel because it introduces us to a quirky version of the city that belongs to this novel. Rather than trying to recreate New York City, though it does that well enough, it’s more importantly willing to render how living in the city is an act of will, a way of accommodating oneself to urban legends and alternative realities of all kinds. Our sense of the way objective reality can be distorted or redefined by subjective viewpoints, we might say, has always been a feature of the novel, and Lethem remains within that frame of reference, rendering some actual oddities of our era—whoever thought collective bidding on eBay could be so dramatic? But he’s also able to extend plausibly the frame of reference to a fantasy “present” that feels right for these times, as when Perkus speaks of a “rupture in this city” and that “ever since” New York has been “a replica of itself,” with the characters at some points beginning to doubt that there’s anything “out there” across the bridges and tunnels.
Arch as this idea of the reclusive city is, it takes on power from the fact that this is Lethem’s post-9/11, late W-era novel, and its working assumption seems to be that something has gone rotten in American lives, with New York’s general sense of unease and anxiety in that period given objective correlatives like the “gray fog” that embraces the financial district, or the novel’s bizarre weather patterns, or that roaming tiger, which some conjecture might be a device of city planning gone awry. The novel is aptly aimed at a readership left reeling from shocks to our system sustained by the rapid succession of events in the early part of the century: the contested election of 2000, the 2001 terrorist attack, the bogus war rationale of 2003 with its WMD (Willful Military Decision), the war’s “successful” completion as a media event, and the 2004 re-election (to get the job done, etc., or the perpetuation of bad faith as a national zeitgeist), followed by revelation of torture methods and general non-accountability. Though those incidents aren’t directly referenced in Chronic, the novel conjures the texture of the times as a state of denial (the paper is available in a “war free edition”), an immersion in the inconsequential (Perkus, fan of Cassavettes and Brando, ends up looking for meaning in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), and a long process of trying to get back to some kind of reasonable reality (Chase chasing the tales of Oona and Janice). It may be that I read too much into it first time through, but in re-reading the novel I found that my impression held and, what’s more, this novel’s robust structure manages to buttress the fairly weak denouement of the Chase-Janice-Oona storyline with the more fully articulated friendship triangle of Chase, Perkus, and former radical turned mayoral attaché Richard Abneg.
In the end, Chronic City is primarily a “bromance,” to use a silly Hollywood-comedy term, and that’s because Perkus is drawn with such great affection in Chase’s narration. It would be easy to lampoon Perkus, but it’s clear from the start that Chase is susceptible to the kinds of passionate engagement with pop culture that are Perkus’ stock and trade. And Chase truly cares, in his somewhat neutral way, for his newfound friend. Chase, living on TV sitcom residuals, is deliberately not a profound character, and yet he is able to rise to the challenge of rendering Perkus’ affecting demise, where sitcom meets doctor drama, so to speak. And even more affecting is Perkus’ love affair with the dog Ava, an example of interpersonal relations as not only the basis for novels but an elemental characteristic of life. Lovers misunderstand each other, friends and family let each other down, but man and dog, in this novel of simulations, theories, and false assumptions, is one of the few definite things.
Chronic City is entertaining enough to keep us in its simulation, which is I guess the most we can hope for, having lived for so long, as Perkus says, “under this regime.”
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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