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Chronic City: A Novel Hardcover – October 13, 2009


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More from Jonathan Lethem
Read the first chapter of Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City [PDF].

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (October 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385518633
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385518635
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #756,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, October 2009: Jonathan Lethem, the home-grown frontrunner of a generation of Brooklyn writers, crosses the bridge to Manhattan in Chronic City, a smart, unsettling, and meticulously hilarious novel of friendship and real estate among the rich and the rent-controlled. Lethem's story centers around two unlikely friends, Chase Insteadman, a genial nonentity who was once a child sitcom star and now is best known as the loyal fiancé of a space-stranded astronaut, and Perkus Tooth, a skinny, moody, underemployed cultural critic. Chase and Perkus are free-floating, dope-dependent bohemians in a borough built on ambition, living on its margins but with surprising access to its centers of power, even to the city's billionaire mayor. Paranoiac Perkus sees urgent plots everywhere--in the font of The New Yorker, in an old VHS copy of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid--but Chronic City, despite the presence of death, politics, and a mysterious, marauding tiger, is itself light on plot. Eschewing dramatic staples like romance and artistic creation for the more meandering passions of friendship and observation, Chronic City thrives instead on the brilliance of Lethem's ear and eye. Every page is a pleasure of pitch-perfect banter and spot-on cultural satire, cut sharply with the melancholic sense that being able to explain your city doesn't make you any more capable of living in it. --Tom Nissley

From Publishers Weekly

SignatureReviewed by Arthur NersesianJonathan Lethem's work has gone from postapocalyptic sci-fi to autobiographical magical realism. In Chronic City, he weaves these elements together, blending a number of actual recent events to create his own surreal urban landscape. The nearly mythological construction of the Second Avenue Subway spawns a strange destructive tiger that defies capture as it transforms the old city into a scary new one. A pair of eagles illegally squatting on an Upper East Side windowsill are summarily evicted. Best of all is the economic abyss that one once encountered above 125th Street. Here, Lethem has dropped a manmade fjord, a performance art chasm.At the heart of this city is former child star Chase Insteadman. Lately, he is better known as a celebrity fiancé to fatale femme astronaut Janice Strumbull, who is stuck in orbit because of Chinese satellite mines. Lately, though, his greater concern is his friend Perkus Tooth. Perkus is a pauper scholar, a slightly delusional Don Quixote character whose windmills are called chaldrons, imagined vases that bring inner peace. Somewhat like the tragic poet Delmore Schwartz who Saul Bellow fictionally eulogized (and Lethem acknowledges) in Humboldt's Gift, Tooth cuts with equal parts genius and madness. Though he never really rises above a plasterer of broadside rants, he's a recognizable artifact of New York circa 1981. Between bong hits—yes, for you potheads, Chronic is his favorite brand—and downtown cultural references, conspiracy theories hiccup from Perkus's lips. A prevalent notion he has is that our reality is nothing more than a facsimile, a simulation of a hidden reality. Perkus's hyperactive brain only pauses when he lapses into his periodic ellipse—a kind of revelatory break. The only problem is his breaks are gradually increasing in frequency. Inasmuch as Perkus is a personification of the old New York and its highly endangered culture, Insteadman finds a moral duty to protect him. If Perkus is Insteadman's moral conscience, Richard Abneg, an opportunistic politico, is Insteadman's naked ambition. Though Abneg started as an East Village anarchist, through intellect and arrogance he rose to become a powerful aide to Mayor Arnaheim (a Giuliani-Bloomberg hybrid). Now he's dismantling the rent stabilization laws he once championed. Eventually, these two work together to save Perkus.Though Chronic City at times requires patience, it is a luxuriously stylized paean to Gotham City's great fountain of culture that is slowly drying up. Like the city itself, the book sways toward the maximal, but its prose shines like our skyline at sunset. The key to his city lies in the very notion of reality: Chase Insteadman's moniker implies that this former actor is now just a stand-in for a greater (perhaps former) reality. By the conclusion, I found myself wondering if Lethem hadn't originally written a shorter simulacra of Chronic City, when it was just an Acute City. From him I would expect no less.Arthur Nersesian is author of The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx (book two of the Five Books of Moses). His next novel, Mesopotamia, a thriller, is due out next year.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

More About the Author

Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College.

He is the author of seven novels including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award, as well as the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger.

He has also written two short story collections, a novella and a collection of essays, edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence magazine.

His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's and many other periodicals.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Customer Reviews

Jonathan Lethem is my new favorite writer.
Gretel
Even though the plot moves along briskly and kept my interest, I just did not really care about what happened to the people in the story.
Bonnie Brody
Unfortunately, the plot and many of the characters never coalesced.
Kentucky Girl

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 111 people found the following review helpful By M. JEFFREY MCMAHON TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I'm a big fan of Lethem's writings. I like his sensibility and always feel he has something compelling to say about the human condition.

Chronic City, like Mark Leyner's Et Tu, Babe, is full of jokes, especially about the hipster crowd. A lot of the jokes have an in-the-know or insider quality. The characters' names, Chase Insteadman, Perkus Tooth, Oona Laszlo, to name a few, sound eerily similar to Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. There is also Ralph Warden Meeker, the author of a 1,000-page novel Obstinate Dust. This seems like a tongue-in-cheek allusion to David Foster Wallace and his sprawling Infinite Jest. One of my favorite jokes is how film critic Perkus Tooth retypes New Yorker articles in a different font style because he believes their gravitas and persuasion is dependent, not on content, but on the iconography of the New Yorker itself. As a compendium of jokes written to be enjoyed by the literati cognoscenti the novel is hilarious.

Sadly, though, Chronic City didn't work as a compelling and absorbing narrative. In fact, the plot left me incurably cold, emotionally distant, and ultimately frustrated.

Stylistically, the novel is a success as Lethem's language and craft always prove eloquent and polished. But this self-consciously hipster novel suffers from a lacking plot engine, self-indulgent characters prone to long-winded discussions about their esoteric knowledge of the arts, and as such the novel suffers from being more of an intellectual exercise with little emotional power. Its theme of hipsters lacking direction doesn't have enough plot impetus or emotional involvement to be rendered with the kind of power I expect from Jonathan Lethem. Five stars for jokes; three stars for plot line.
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66 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Dick Johnson VINE VOICE on October 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In case you miss some events the first time, don't worry Lethem will return to them - and return to them - until you want to scream "Get on with the story! (If there is one.)". Thus went the first half of this book.

Actually there were some attempts to mingle several stories, none of which will push this to the top of Lethem's bibliography. As much as I usually enjoy Lethem, this one was a disappointment.

The whole book is about some amorphous Manhattan of perhaps some not-so-distant future. The characters are equally as formless as they wander without purpose from one juvenile, hedonistic romp with sex, pot and booze, to another. They are equally unwilling to provide meaning to each other's lives - and they are 'friends'.

Of course, no book by Lethem is a total flub. There are always enough zingers and turns of phrase to keep even a lesser effort worth another turn of a page. The interactions of the characters are presented in a noirish style, and where the novel does advance, there were some moments of meaning.

Fortunately, I'll probably have forgotten this one before Lethem releases his next one - and hopefully the next one will have something about it to remember. I suggest you to wait for that next one and give this one a pass.
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43 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Theoden Humphrey VINE VOICE on October 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There's nothing wrong with this book, but it was a mistake for me. I got it because I am an admirer of Jonathan Lethem -- and I still am -- but while I loved "Gun, With Occasional Music" and "The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye," his literary novels are just too detached and meandering for me to enjoy. I love the way he writes, and there are some wonderful flourishes in this book -- I particularly liked Laird Noteless, the "sculptor" whose works are nothing more than enormous holes in the ground in awkward places, and the moment when the main character, Chase Insteadman, has one of those classic hypochondriacal synaesthetic attacks, when he is overwhelmed by sensation and alienation -- and it turns out he has the flu.

But for the most part, the book felt wrong to me. I need more of a narrative and less self-aware humor. I have also known people like Perkus Tooth, and I don't like them, so sympathy for this guy was hard to drum up. For those who enjoy postmodernist literature, I think this book would probably be a wonderful experience, but I couldn't finish it. Which, of course, makes me feel like a semi-literate buffoon, but there are too many books out there to read, and enjoy reading, for me to spend more time slogging through something that I can't get a handle on.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Vince Leo on January 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Saying that Chronic City is a book about male friendship is like saying 2001 A Space Odyssey is a movie about an expedition to Jupiter, meaning not really. Chronic City is actually about representation, about what things "stand for," and about the illusions that result from the late-capitalist infotainment/political industry disruption of the representational framework. Because it is set in an alternative Manhattan full of historical characters and fictional events, locating the real within the pages of Chronic City isn't difficult, it's effing impossible, and that's the point.

The object of the book's and JL's desire is the Manhattan of the late 70s: the innocent rebellion of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; the theoretical and political maturation of pop music critics; the street art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. It's nostalgic for a Manhattan that still had within its borders the means to resist the onslaught of the corporate symbolic order. That said, there's no way to prepare yourself for the onslaught of JL's anger, curiosity, and sadness for the world that didn't materialize (or did) from that historic moment of critique. The writing is dazzling: from theoretical discussions on the nature of meaning to grand set pieces with dozens of characters to a narrative so perfectly paced and constructed, its surprise ending will keep you awake for days.

There IS a male friendship in Chronic City: between an actor (a walking, talking, VERY sexual imaginary) and a cultural critic (sorry cultural critics: we're talking ABSOLUTE-ZERO sex), but all the characters in the book participate to the degree to which they interact with the basic relationships of representation and real, truth and big-other power.
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