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.
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.
A cursory reading of CHRONIC CITY is likely to disappoint. On the surface, the book is about nothing more than a handful of stoned Manhattanites who seem to have way too much time on their hands. The central character is a child star living off of his sitcom's residuals and his lingering good looks; his name -- Chase Insteadman -- reveals most of what there is to say about him, although his friends rarely hesitate to call him out for what he is: a wandering ghost of half-hearted urges, most of them sexual.
At the start of the book, Chase befriends a free-lance social critic named Perkus Tooth, who then introduces him to a New York of dying cultural import. Like all over-educated stoners, Perkus often ricochets his line of thought down the paths of conspiracy, meta-meaning, and the power of symbols, but his ramblings are so persistent and self-righteous, no one pays close enough attention when one or more of them turn out to be right. Perkus and Chase live in a Manhattan of the future, where war is a constant presence (at least in the newspapers that Chase never reads), a huge gray fog has subsumed half of the city, a post-modern artist goes about installing huge craters in the city, the air sometimes smells like chocolate, and some kind of sentient presence (that may or may not be a tiger) occasionally destroys a building. Oh, and Chase has a fiance named Janice, an astronaut who is stranded in a space station high above the earth.
Ill be the first to say that what Lethem has done here is brilliant (as usual), although I'm also certain that (not living in New York), I didn't "get" much of what he alluded to. This is, basically, a book about living in a book. It's about solipsism, about the meaning of life, about -- in plainer terms -- what constitutes existence. All of the pot smoking seemed like a contrivance when I first read the book, but now it's clear that Lethem is suggesting something else. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and pot smokers are notorious for relentless examination of even the most disparate of life's minutiae, even if they also fail to do any actual living. Whether pot leads to any actual insight or clarity is up for debate by the good people at NORML and DARE. At the very least, Lethem seems to say, it does take the mind out of its own grooves.
If you give this book any kind of deeper examination, you're bound to close it with the hazy idea that you just learned something seriously important (and interesting) and then promptly forgot it again. Lethem arranges the "plots" -- they are as fragile and inter-related as snowflakes spiraling down from the sky -- so that they clump together at precisely the point when they also melt. The characters search for meaning that is just as elusive -- in particular a collection of spiritually unsettling ceramics known as "chaldrons" -- and perhaps just as real. The fact that almost all of it has to do with an on-line reality game called YET ANOTHER WORLD is also no coincidence.
I'm getting off track. Maybe. It's hard to tell. The interweaving of a treacherous blizzard (how fitting), a ghostwriter (no, she's not an actual ghost...I don't think), and Marlon Brando adds to the cluttered, blue-smoke bluster of the book. It's the closest you can get to being high without injesting anything other than words. Unfortunately, just like most artificial highs, this book leaves behind blanks that you could've sworn were already filled in. By the end of the novel, New York appears to be cranking away under a perpetual snowfall. Just as streets and sidewalks are cleared for use, just as it's certain to where they lead, the faceless sky erases them away -- even just for a moment -- under a blanket of white, and all of the New Yorkers must trudge out and find their way again.
Chase, among all of them, narrates the tale (Lethem cheats several times, narrating a few chapters without Chase's help, a move that is puzzling and detracts from the book, even if it's also necessary) as if it were a handbook on how to live without knowing it. By the end, Chase, like most readers are bound to be, is aware that something larger (sinister?) is going on, but he hasn't the faintest idea what it is or how to deal with it. Mostly he does what everyone else does, and occupies his part of it. The final moment of the book I love, love, loved. The chaldrons mentioned earlier are prized, Chase says, because of their "thingliness," their purity of being. In the last paragraphs, only finally (and maybe, just like a pothead, only vaguely and sweetly) does Chase realize that even if life is confusing, disturbing, and beyond all human scope, it is at least touchable, embraceable, and frameable.
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.
on January 18, 2010
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. The story within the story within the story is that reality exists only as we construct it through struggle. Illusion isn't the natural state of things but the measure of our complicity with the world constructed by the powers that be. Unfortunately, it's not that simple and the true accomplishment of Chronic City is how JL imagines the relationship of struggle and complicity as a vast, complex totality, an all-too-human ecosystem of good intentions and lost opportunities. Chronic City is replete with postmodern cynicism and lit in-jokes, but it is also infused with sympathy and generosity for those who seek and fail and continue seeking. In this, JL provides more than a call to arms, he provides a measure of grace, without which the struggle for reality would be neither possible nor worth the effort.
on December 19, 2011
It will be many readers' misfortune to read "Chronic City" without ever having lived in Manhattan. They may dismiss the work summarily as a self-indulgent exercise in postmodernism, and I will understand why. Rarely have I encountered a piece of contemporary literature which relied so heavily on setting - not just physically, since (as we shall see) this version of New York is not altogether the one with which we're familiar - but rather, the collective state of mind of those who make their home in the city.
Manhattan is like a fractal - worlds unfold into worlds. The island splits into neighborhoods, which are made up of blocks, which in turn contain buildings which may each contain as many people (and stories) as an entire small town. Considered from within, the island as a whole represents an incomprehensible amount of information. Residents deal with this by compartmentalizing their lives, restricting their movements to comfortable routes within specific neighborhoods, places where they can know and be known. For many long-time Manhattanites in particular, a few blocks may represent an insurmountable distance and an alien world.
It's this sense of urban imprisonment which Lethem so ingeniously captures in "Chronic City." He realizes New York City as a tremendous machine OF incalculable size and complexity, which inflicts its will on residents rather than vice-versa. Those who have glimpsed the machinations of the city are seen here as prophets, transcendent geniuses, or omniscient politicians. Others - including our main characters - are simply trapped, and exist without fully understanding their confinement. The novel is therefore bathed in a sense of psychedelic claustrophobia.
Yes, the characters seem somewhat unfeeling. Yes, they behave like avatars towards one another, with little interpersonal understanding. But given the revelations implied by the end of the story, is this truly inappropriate? Only one solitary being in "Chronic City" has truly escaped - to space, no less - and, as we are made to guess, this character may be no more than the imagination of an imagination.
This is a tremendous, weird and complicated book. I highly recommend it.
on November 15, 2009
I loved Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" and enjoyed "Fortress of Solitude", but this attempt really misses the mark. The main characters are has beens on the periphery of art, fame, money and high society in New York City. Their lives are boring and pointless, but they spend their time together to mutually reinforce their false sense of importance. The book moves at a dreadfully slow pace, or perhaps it just seems that way because the story and characters are so uninvolving. This book is a real dud.
First, a disclaimer: Lethem's 'Chronic City' will most definitely NOT be a 5-star book for everybody (as evidenced by the overwhelming amount of 3-star reviews here). However, I can't be objective here and knock a star or two off in order to quantify that, since it was one of the most engaging, thought-provoking, and just-plain-fun novels I've read in quite a while, with some of the most sublime prose in modern fiction.
Here's a simple test to help determine if this will be a 5-star book for you, or a 3. Please choose the answer that best describes your feelings:
1. I find Richard Linklater's semi-surreal, conversation-based films such as 'Waking Life' and 'A Scanner Darkly' (possibly 'Slacker' as well) to be:
A. Mostly amazing, makes me think deep thoughts
B. Pretty good, nothing special
D. Don't know, never watched those
2. I find Philip K. Dick's paranoia-infused work concerning the nature of reality to be:
A. Mindblowing and awesome for the most part
B. Decent, makes good movie fodder occasionally
C. Sloppy and/or incomprehensible
D. Don't know, never read him
3. I find listening to philosophically-inclined stoned people frantically and loudly debate existential topics to be:
A. Hilarious, with the occasional cool concept or nugget of seeming truths
B. OK in small doses
C. Very annoying
D. Don't know, never was around any philosophically-inclined stoners
If you've answered anything other than "A" to more than one of those questions, then there's a decent chance this may not be the book for you. However, even if you've answered "B" to one or two, but still had an "A" mixed in, then you may very well find this to be up your alley. If you answered "D" to more than one, then it's a total crapshoot, but it helps if you're someone who sometimes enjoys thinking about the nature of the world around you, just for kicks. "C's" are just-plain-bad as far as you and this book jiving.
Either way, it's best to go in with an open mind, but at the same time realize that the many strange things about the Manhattan of this novel (the following examples are all mentioned early on in the book)--such as the escaped tiger wreaking havoc in the city; the transcendental power of rare vases called "chaldrons" that the main characters are obsessed with finding; the letters Chase receives from his famous astronaut fiancee, who's stuck in space due to a bunch of Chinese mines orbiting the Earth (and who Chase has difficulty remembering); the gray fog that pervades all of Lower Manhattan; even the mysterious homeless guy who lives beneath Perkus's apartment window--all have a purpose and serve as clues as to what's really going on. It's important to keep this in mind, and not simply go on thinking it's all just a bunch of characters and their insane stoned ramblings, with some tiger silliness and such added in for flavor.
The first time I attempted to read 'Chronic City'--a few years back--I didn't realize this, and I ended up giving up within a few chapters, not quite getting the point. Now it's clear I just wasn't in the right frame-of-mind. Four days ago--intrigued by the constant praises the author heaps upon Philip K. Dick, and the fact that I'm a fan of Lethem's science fiction works of the 90's--I briefly skimmed both Amazon and publication reviews, and the glowing ones all emphasized words like "conspiracy," "insane," "simulacrum," "uproarious," and "existential." Those words are some of my favorites, so I dove in again with a different mindset, and I just now turned the final page, my mind well and truly blown.
It definitely will not be everyone's cup of tea, so I can't give a full-on, no qualifiers recommendation. But if you're like me, and enjoy getting caught up in mysteries about what's real and what's not, with a group of eccentric thirty-something, pseudo-intellectual, "used-to-be-a-big-deal-but-are-now-pretty-much-just-stoners" (hence the "Chronic" in 'Chronic City') for company, then you're not likely to find a more well-written, absorbing--at times even mind-bending--book around, with more than a handful of laugh out-loud moments, a rarity for me with literature.
In other words, 4-5 stars for those of us who are mostly "A's," and 3 stars on average for the rest, in my estimation. Some people, I'm sure, will find the stellar dialogue and great characters (including the city itself) enough to carry them through. There's no denying that Jonathan Lethem can write, so have faith that it IS all leading somewhere, and just enjoy the ride in the meantime, even if it is a bit meandering. Me, I wish I could have spent even more time with these lunatics--especially Richard "forever stalked by eagles" Abneg, whom I pictured as Zach Galifianakis (bearded version), which made his plight even more ridiculous and amusing--and I'll probably be re-reading 'Chronic City' every few years for the rest of my life, and that's more than good enough for a 5-star rating in my book, even if many may disagree.
I have a feeling, however, that 'Chronic City' will find its audience one day, but for now I'm just glad that I gave this book another shot, as I believe I may have found a new favorite author in Jonathan Lethem.
on January 12, 2010
Here is a future New York at its most monochrome, a doper's downer of a scene where everything's all glittering with snow and there's very little heat, the mysterious Tiger that prowls the subway has a love life but the ineffectual characters aboveground really have none.
This is a parable of a novel -- not in the religious sense, although the mysteries of belief in something larger play a part -- but in its all-surface, little-substance plot there's a lot to consider, like a 1960s rock song whose lyrics add up to intimations of something grand and important (let's not name names here). "Chronic City" winds a stoner's way to meaning ... something more, even if Lethem himself couldn't really figure out what, exactly, it all means. And, to resurrect the old phraseology, that's pretty heavy.
Only, it really isn't. The signifying names -- Chase Insteadman, Perkus Tooth, Oona Laszlo, the Hawkman, Laird Noteless -- are more interesting than the characters themselves, and the story (such as there is) wanders through scenes and conspiratorial plots that are like hearing about a party afterward at which you only knew one person who was really a friend of somebody else. (At one point, Insteadman tells an overzealous movie producer about a script that never arrived, "I didn't get it." "I love it! You didn't get it. There's nothing to get, Chase!" the producer zings back, clueless. Many readers will feel the same way.)
The repeated references to music and movies and art that are meant to bind this group of people together, however loosely, are the in-jokes you missed at the party: Marlon Brando in a Muppet movie ... the Stones' lips-and-tongue logo on a woolen hat ... "The Twilight Zone" platinum collection four-disc set ... Is this the future or merely twenty minutes ahead?
Apparently no one reads (even Insteadman his own fiancee's letters), but they share a common knowledge of media-by-pixel. Perkus, the one-time rock critic and poster-artist, has developed a mistrust of the printed word altogether and scans the typeface of the New York Times for its hidden meanings.
As self-absorbed and insular as these characters are, twitching in their orbits like Perkus' wayward eye itself, they become increasingly more difficult to care about in the book, and the only real element of human kindness and love comes in the letters of Chase Insteadman's astronaut fiancee, caught in her own drama circling high above the earth, and blissfully unaware of the human chaos below.
Intentioned or not, Lethem's parable may well be telling us all simply to look ... up ... once in a while from our own, pixilated universes, unless we should miss the real meaning of it all. The book ends, paradoxically, with both a bang and a whimper, as if Lethem himself isn't really sure what it all signifies. But it's a trip, man, if you're up for it. After finishing "Chronic City" with all of its tricks (the chocolate smells, Ava the three-legged dog, the novel's own insubstantial plot), though, the one thing I really craved was a Jackson Hole burger.
I was eager to read "Chronic City" when it first came out, but somehow my copy disappeared into the book pile---for two years. I'm rather glad it did, since the time lapse gave me some perspective on the disappointment so many of Lethem's readers felt when they read this novel. As a fan of "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude," I would have felt the same had I read "Chronic City" right after it was published.
And in truth, the first half of the novel, set mostly on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, is hard to take. The philosophical musings of Perkus Tooth, the ex-rock critic, are often just plain boring. Chase Insteadman, the former child actor, is the central narrator but seems to have little function other than as a provider of bagels and as dope-smoking companion to the chattering Perkus. What kept me going, just when I was ready to throw the book across the room (not really) were flashes of wit and wordplay, along with the amusing characterizations of rich people: the billionaire mayor Arnheim; the socialite Georgina Hawkmanaji; the pajama-clad Rossmoor Danzig.
Once the novel shifts ground to an apartment house for dogs and Ava the pit bull emerges as a central character, the novel becomes more interesting. However, I must admit that I found all of the stuff--and there is a lot of it-- about virtual reality, alternate worlds, ghostwriters, nocturnal tigers, glowing chaldrons to be.... just stuff. I couldn't take it seriously. I couldn't even figure out if I was supposed to take it seriously. In the last chapters of the novel, a world outside Manhattan emerges. It is perfectly mundane, which makes it perfectly real. Is that the point? I have no idea.