Jonathan Lethem — Chronic City

Jonathan Lethem, Brooklyn native and de-facto chronicler of life in the borough, caught a lot of flak for placing his last novel (gasp!) in Los Angeles. In Chronic City he casts his gaze back to the city that never sleeps, although his version of Manhattan is, as you might imagine, a little off.

Lethem has a gift for blending literary genres; his fiction always has a smattering of science fiction, his noir has a metaphysical bent. In between 2007’s geographically maligned You Don’t Love Me Yet, and this novel, he even took a stab at reviving the forgotten superhero Omega the Unknown for Marvel Comics, and it is the comic book that informs this novel; it’s characters are, by choice, two-dimensional, and play out all the necessary New York archetypes against a flat back drop of apartments, diners, taxi cabs, and improbable not-so-random violence.

The novel’s protagonist is an empty vessel named Chase Insteadman, a former child actor who lives off of royalties and making the scene with Manhattan’s rich and even richer. His latest claim to fame, and the one that instills him at all the important parties, is his engagement to an astronaut who is marooned on the International Space Station due to a carpet of space mines that have been sowed underneath its orbit by the Chinese. Like a lot of things in the novel, this is taken for granted and nobody seems that interested in doing anything about it. Perhaps, and just perhaps, this is Lethem’s dig at the place the international community finds itself in relation to China’s rising prominence on the world stage. At this point, what could we do if they decided to mine the heavens? Write a strongly worded letter? Stop buying … oh, I don’t know, everything?

Insteadman’s “lostronaut” writes him letters that are reproduced in the New York Times (albeit in the War-Free edition that seems to be favored by most) so that most people know more about what is going on than he does. Insteadman’s problem is that he can’t quite remember his fiancé or how he became an ornamental table setting.

There are clues from the beginning that all is not right with Lethem’s island, for one, Lower Manhattan has been enveloped in a mysterious dense fog that never dissipates. Like DeLillo’s “air-borne toxic event,” there is a disconnect between what’s real and what is simulated. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (whose position as the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona, Lethem is due to inherit) has become Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker, another overly long book that no one finishes. Muppets have become Gnuppets, which may just be a wink at Gnosticism, loosely defined by Wikipedia as “consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that the material cosmos was created by an imperfect god.”

The root of Gnostic belief, gnosis, is further defined as “a form of mystic, revealed, esoteric knowledge through which the spiritual elements of humanity are reminded of their true origins within the superior Godhead, being thus permitted to escape materiality.”

Insteadman’s catalyst, and a fount of esoteric knowledge, is Perkus Tooth, a stand-in for an aspect of Lethem’s own personality in much the same way as Kilgore Trout took the heat for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Tooth is a twitchy, well-stoned cartoon in the Lester Bangs mold, and although he bristles at being called a rock critic, is as remembered for a stint at Rolling Stone than for a series of intellectual commando-style broadsides that papered the Bowery back in the day.

The chronic in the novel’s title, is an allusion to the high-grade marijuana that Tooth, Insteadman, and a former activist-turned-mayoral-fixer, Richard Abneg, imbibe with stunning regularity. The trio’s pot-driven cultural insights and conspiracy theorizing are either the best parts of the book, or the worst, depending on one’s own proclivities. I, for one, loved Tooth’s Marlon Brando obsession and manic drive to “connect the dots.”

Almost exactly halfway through the book, a game-changing possibility is introduced that ties directly into Gnostic belief and, like religion, either explains everything or nothing at all. Tooth’s homeless associate Biller finds work designing “treasure” for a virtual universe called Yet Another World, created in turn by Linus Carter, a brilliant but socially inept designer—an imperfect god.

A description of Carter’s online universe reads like a Lonely Planet guide to Manhattan itself, a “… paraphrase of reality which welcomed role-players, entrepreneurs, sexual trollers, whatever.” The line between real and unreal becomes even more blurred as Insteadman realizes that “Yet Another World wasn’t the only reality that was expansible. Money has its solvent powers …”

In the end, our empty hero comes to realize it doesn’t really matter if the island that he knows is indeed real, or if anything actually exists on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel. He learns the hard way that what is important is the real relationships that we form with other travelers.

As for Tooth, he is finally permitted to escape materiality through losing everything and finally finding a kindred spirit, in this case a massive three-legged pit bull named Ava. The dog continues to work healing magic on Insteadman after his own collapse into his own footprint. Having inherited the responsibility of walking her, he finally abandons Manhattan’s ubiquitous taxis for a street-level view of his world.

“… it occurred to me how Ava’s paces, her bold and patient pissings, must have been immensely comforting to Perkus, and in a sense familiar. Ava’s a kind of broadsider herself, famous within a circle of correspondents, invisible to those who don’t care.”


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