Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Through his apartment window there is a sliver of empty sky—some small evidence that the world is continuous beyond the island of Manhattan. The window view, only partly blocked by the neighboring Dorfll Tower, affords Chase Insteadman, the narrator of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, a momentary glimpse of a layered world: a flock of birds moves in instinctive patterns around an unknown church spire that is the single structure rising into the sky. In the blue space beyond, an airplane passes through the frame. And in the black void beyond that, a space station with Chase’s astronaut fiancée trapped on board continues its perpetual orbit around the earth. These objects, Chase understands, move according to their own laws, each oblivious and inconsequential to the other, their stories linked only to a single nexus—to Chase and the narrative he creates.
The world is a web of intersecting and diverging trajectories in Chronic City in which confluence is illuminated only by the partial visions of characters who construct, each according to their unique histories and paranoias, their own worlds within worlds. It is, in other words, a story about storytelling, and as such encompasses under a single, ambitious, and decidedly postmodern umbrella the ideas about identity, culture, history, cities, and loss that Lethem has been exploring since Motherless Brooklyn.
The enormous plot goes like this: Chase is a former child star best remembered for his role in an inoffensive and long-syndicated sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. He lives on residual checks and the occasional voice-over gig, but also finds himself as the unwitting lead in a national tabloid story in which he waits, heartbroken and ever-hoping, for the return to earth of his astronaut fiancée, Janice, who is trapped in orbit on the international space station. Janice writes heartbreaking love letters to Chase that the press scoops up from NASA for publication.
The publicly lived melodrama gives Chase an eerie sense that his life is scripted and meaningless, and indeed, an odd emptiness pervades every scene of the novel. As though in search of some palliative, something to fill the void, Chase wiles away his evenings with New York’s elite on an Upper East Side party circuit that values him as a guest for being charming and pleasant and for being at the center of the human interest story du jour.
“I’m truly a vacuum filled by the folks I’m with, and vapidly neutral in their absence,” says Chase. It’s an observation typical of his pointedly self-aware narration and one that hints at a paradox at the heart of the book: that Chase, the only reliable storyteller we have, is also the character who we know least about, who seems most deeply lost, and who is least cognizant of the writing on the walls around him. His myopic vision is tuned to the details—to minute gestures, textures, feelings, and motivations—but seems unable to discern the broader arc of the narrative. That is, of course, if there is one. It’s a big question in this book.
Against this backdrop, Chase meets Perkus Tooth, a freelance writer specializing in Criterion Collection liner notes. In an earlier New York, Perkus had plastered downtown with raves about art and music that earned him a cult following and a short stint as a critic for Rolling Stone, but his fifteen minutes of countercultural fame have long passed. Chase finds Perkus as an aging bohemian retreated into a hole of his own making, an obsessive collector, and a dying type of guardian whose curatorship of esoteric culture has become sadly irrelevant in the age of both the internet and—in one of the story’s knowing ironies—the age of Criterion Collection. Perkus is Lethem’s most compelling character, and his longing and loss are the book’s thematic anchor. Surrounded by forgotten culture and his own forgotten celebrity, Perkus is—like Chase, and like an Upper East Side that itself seems to be forgotten by time—a ghostly figure. There is loss at the heart of this story, experienced as an unknown emptiness.
And yet, to the aimless Chase, Perkus’s voracious and insatiable consumption of art and ideas seems to be fueled by some inner compass, the mechanics of which he is determined to understand. The relationship gives him some ersatz direction through a delicately skewed Manhattan—a hazy amalgamation of the real and fantastic that could have sprung from Pynchon or Delillo, though Lethem has said the direct influence was Philip K. Dick. It’s a city composed of actual headlines and thinly veiled fictionalizations of real-life city figures, as well as, for example, a loose killer tiger that may or may not actually be a city-sanctioned tunnel-digging robot that has developed a mind of its own. There’s a war-free edition of the New York Times. And an artist named Laird Noteless makes public art installations that are simply gorges cleaved out of the city streets. As ominous weather and strange smells descend on the island, there is a pending sense of doom, like the place is being eaten away.
It is a declining world that Chase and Perkus attempt to parse and understand, and they wind up, along with a small group of friends, on a paranoid wild goose chase through the city’s forgotten slums and halls of power. Richard Abneg, whose unruly beard is the only vestige of his countercultural past, is a right hand man to the mayor and is their skeptical friend on the inside. Oona Laslow, a ghost writer of insipid celebrity autobiographies whose thick carapace of sarcasm obscures more than she is letting on, is a mysterious friend of Perkus’ for whom Chase falls.
The motley crew spends long nights smoking pot in the mole-hole Perkus has carved out of his rent-controlled apartment. An inordinate amount of time is devoted to them engaging in stoner philosophy and then bidding with a dial-up internet connection on eBay, chasing after elusive talismans called ‘chaldrons’ that inevitably go at the last second to anonymous bidders for tens of thousands of dollars. But what are the chaldrons? And more importantly, to what secretive world are they disappearing? Are they connected to the killer tiger that is terrorizing the city? Are they connected to a flock of protected birds nesting over Richard’s apartment window? Why are those birds protected? And what has really happened to Chase’s fiancée, Janice? In an attempt to connect the dots, the crew digs for truth in a bottomless hole, only boring deeper with each new discovery. Suspicions are confirmed. Conspiracy theories pan out to be possibly true. Fears that the world is run in secret by money and insular centers of power are mostly correct.
The relationship with Oona does create a compelling love triangle between Chase, the woman on earth, and the woman in outer space that turns out to be at the heart of the book’s deeper mystery. Janice’s well-placed love letters from outer space are achingly sincere and genuinely moving. And while the letters give Lethem room to play with some imaginatively tragic and comic sci-fi space drama, they also expand on the eerie sense of loss and emptiness at the center of the story. Janice is another sort of half-real figure whose presence is felt and then forgotten. Her position at any given moment is known, like a star, only by the imperfect light that reaches earth.
That the characters feel unreal in this way is one of the difficult realities of reading Chronic City: that what is thematically compelling is also dramatically flawed. It’s a long book, and for two hundred or so middle pages it feels like it, and for two hundred or so middle pages in which a lot of stuff happens to unknowable characters, it can feel like a long game of narrative chess. Chase’s narration is so dense with astute observations about people and relationships and cities, it is disappointing that he himself, as well as his friends, seem empty until the end of the book. There, for the first time a shared history between Richard and Perkus is believably rendered with a single uttered line that is both hilarious and sad, and the hole at the center of Chase’s life fills in. It is a quietly poignant conclusion, but it can be a slog getting there.
Fortunately, Lethem infuses the book with the kind of sweeping observations about people and the way they live that in baser forms might be called stereotype, but here hit on weirdly accurate general truths that might be called Updikian. He knows New York intimately, and the book is better for it. Among the convincingly rendered realities of life in the city is the odd phenomenon in which a person can construct their fate out of a physical space, the way in which they can become psychologically trapped in an apartment—what Lethem (might be loath to call) their Fortress of Solitude.
He is due credit, at least, for delving into intimidatingly over-worn, and yet oddly under-explored territory. In a pot-fueled story about worlds within worlds, the long shadows cast by Pynchon and Delillo and Barth are hard to escape, and yet as a story about the subjective narratives that are the building blocks of the world, Chronic City does have something both difficult and moving to say. People find purpose in stories. People locate identity in stories. People, tragically, create stories and get lost inside. This is not the book in which the author, wrestling with purpose and meaning in his own work, attempts to justify to believers and skeptics alike, “why we write.” Of interest to Lethem are the stories that create New York City out of a 13×2 mile grid and the stories that sustain that city even as it is passed from one dead generation to the next. This being a Lethem book, culture itself is a story with as many variations as there are points to connect. And for a book that attempts to answer the age-old and so potentially uninteresting question, “is the story true?” Chronic City finds truth that does not preclude fantasy or conspiracy or any of our various responses to the unknown.
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