Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City

Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Chronic City, is set in the near future in a slightly surrealist Upper East Side. Its protagonist Chase Insteadman, is a handsome, affable former child star, living comfortably off of the royalties generated by the reruns of a TGIF-style sitcom he starred in twenty-five years ago. While interviewing for a voiceover gig, he meets Perkus Tooth, a freelance cultural critic who captivated the city with his gonzo broadsides in the CBGB era and has been wasting away in a cloud of marijuana smoke and conspiracy theories every since. Chase soon becomes Perkus' permanent sounding board, through endless nights of greasy take-out food, expensive brands of pot, and viewings of obscure movies. They are joined by Richard, one of the major's fixers, who went to high school with Perkus and whose life of high-powered meetings and seductive socialites seems to have little in common with theirs.

Perkus, Richard, and seemingly all of their friends are obsessed with stories of the edgier, grittier New York of the Koch/Dinkins era. The bizarre romanticism they feel for this era confuses Chase, until a series of catastrophes beset the city that make it seem as if the city is regressing back to its pre-Guiliani form. A permanent, low-lying fog that envelops the financial district, strange smells permeate midtown, the upper east side is beset by a seemingly random series of violent attacks and imploded buildings that are rumored to be the work of a wild tiger, escaped from the zoo, and the parties of the rich and famous become more and more decadent.

Chronic City's Upper East Side is every bit as fascinating -and every bit as big of a character in its own right - as The Fortress of Solitude's Boerum Hill or Motherless Brooklyn's South Brooklyn, but, unlike his two superior previous novels, Lethem does do very much with the city-as-character he spent so much time meticulously developing. It is the setting of a much more ambitious novel, but Lethem's masterful scene-setting is wasted on a novel that consists of a series of digressive conversations between Chase, Perkus and Richard about Marlon Brando, The Muppets, and The Twilight Zone.

Chronic City contains many of the showy set-pieces for which Lethem is justifiably revered, but it is torn between being a small character study and an ambitious, Pynchonesque epic. Unfortunately for Chronic City's readers, that is an uncomfortable place to be.