- Hardcover: 480 pages
- Publisher: Doubleday (October 13, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780385518635
- ISBN-13: 978-0385518635
- ASIN: 0385518633
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 114 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,369,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Chronic City: A Novel Hardcover – October 13, 2009
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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.
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But Lethem adds a point that Dick and movies like THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR leave out: "conspiracies" cannot help but reduce themselves to interactions of human beings: those who conspire against you may be your friends and lovers, REALLY, even as their conspiracy continues.
This is new and interesting--but dry, best illustrated in the rather cold, self-mocking way which Lethem uses, and which negative reviewers here have commented on. Lethem has pointed out in his personal essays how he was drawn to a colder, more cerebral and more comic book-like art than his father produced.
Many reviewers have noted that the book's narrator, Chase Insteadman, is an uninteresting character. But so are we all. It would take novelistic trickery to make us interesting, and most novelists would not be interested enough in us to bother. Neither is Lethem, but he's interested in our situation. What should uninteresting people do? Dream of being at the center of a conspiracy? But would being a victim, or even being a conspirator, make them any more interesting?
To the five-star reviewers, yes. To the one-star reviewers, no. To Lethem ... who knows? But these are some of the points he covers.
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT The conceit of this book - and it's not particularly obvious that this is the conceit until the very, very end - is that the protagonist Chase Insteadman doesn't *exactly* live in Manhattan. He lives in a kind of Second Life version of Manhattan, but one created by people with an *awful* lot of time on their hands, so much so that there is another, Inception-style Second Life that exists in their virtual world, one that a lot of "sims" or whatever spend large amounts of their own free time building. There's no real mention of the world outside; it appears that these characters are all artificially created objects who have no way of knowing about the outside world (actually, Richard Abneg could be a "human", thinking about it), but trust me on this: by the last sentence of the book it's kind of obvious what is going on.
Once you figure this out, a great many things about the book which were annoying before begin to make a lot more sense. The Thomas Pynchon-style names, for one. Chase "Insteadman", really? A woman named Georgina Hawkmanaji? "Perkus Tooth" and "Oona Laszlo" seem normal by comparison. See also: the weird misspellings of pieces of the popular canon like Muppets (I kept wondering to myself, "what is Lethem going to say about Jim Henson's creations that would get him in trouble with the franchise and led him to rename them 'Gnuppets'?") or "Obstinate Dust" replacing "Infinite Jest" (which was my favorite part of this book because MAN do I hate Infinite Jest). See also: the weird, weird things going on in there like the giant burrowing tiger that periodically trashes buildings. All of this stuff makes a massive load more sense once you figure out that the characters live in a simulacrum of New York City.
Anyway, this almost makes me want to go back and read everything again with that in mind. It's a bit, I guess, like "Memento" or "The Sixth Sense" in the way that everything you experience before this revelation is colored by the revelation itself. Around 40% of the way through the book it felt like little more than a hipster stoner comedy; you get 80% of the way in before it finally starts to really drop the aforementioned bomb on you. Heck, I might revisit it in a couple months. It's satire, for sure, and hipstery satire on top of that, but I'm not convinced that it's just, I don't know, "Airplane" for the PBR-drinking crowd that some of the negative reviewers might lead you to think it is.
That being said, I can't in good conscience give this 5 stars because in the end I think it's a bit too precious for its own good. I get that Lethem was trying to hide the simulacrum aspect of things, and to some extent he did a good job of it simply by allowing the characters to interact with the world the way characters not entirely in on the "joke" so to speak would interact. That being said, this conceit in particular just makes it seem a bit full of itself for its own good. It's not intentionally... obstinate the way DFW could get but neither is it a great example of clear, forcible writing.
It is well worth reading though. This was my intro to Lethem so I can't speak to how well it compares to his Brooklyn book. I think that, generally, if you enter this book understanding that even though New York is the putative home, it's really a much weirder, SimCity version of New York, you probably won't be too confused and/or frustrated.