Books: Ron Charles Reviews Jonathan Lethem's 'Chronic City'

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009


By Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday. 467 pp. $27.95

Jonathan Lethem's brilliant, bloated new novel about the hollowness of modern life should delight his devoted fans -- and put them on the defensive. They will point, justifiably, to the exquisite wit and dazzling intricacy of every single paragraph. In the pages of "Chronic City," all 467 of them, this super-hip, genre-blurring, MacArthur-winning, best-selling novelist proves he's one of the most elegant stylists in the country, and he's capable of spinning surreal scenes that are equal parts noir and comedy. But ultimately, these perfectly choreographed sentences compose a tedious reading experience in which redundancy substitutes for development and effect for profundity.

This is a strange study of the shimmering unreality of New York City, full of knowing references to its culture, politics, celebrities, aristocrats and authors. The story takes place as a series of long monologues and conversations, both cerebral and silly. The narrator, Chase Insteadman, is a handsome bon vivant, "a Manhattan gadabout," who skates on "frictionless ball bearings of charm" and lives off residuals from his days as a child TV star.

"I'm outstanding only in my essential politeness," he confesses in a formal, slightly archaic voice that marks the novel's most masterly and seductive quality. "My distinction (if there is one) lies in the helpless and immersive extent of my empathy. I'm truly a vacuum filled by the folks I'm with, and vapidly neutral in their absence."

Though he's tirelessly observant and sensitive -- a wry combination of "P.G. Wodehouse and Cary Grant" -- he offers so many confessions of forgetfulness and confusion that his unreliability as a narrator is the only thing you can definitely rely on. Indeed, he seems determined to live up to his name, "Instead-man," as a kind of substitute man, "pointlessly deferential," perpetually flummoxed, baffled and amazed by what's happening to him. When a fan accidentally calls him "Chase Unperson," he takes no offense at all.

As the novel opens, Chase meets and quickly falls under the spell of an unemployed writer named Perkus Tooth. With one wandering eye and a collection of bizarre vintage suits, Perkus once, briefly, ruled the world of music criticism -- "Hunter Thompson-meets-Pauline Kael" -- writing for Rolling Stone and plastering the city with his iconoclastic posters. But now he's a "fugitive ecstatic," holed up in his "bohemian grotto," smoking pot and assembling ever-more-complex conspiracy theories and occult knowledge about New York City. Marlon Brando could help, of course, but he's in hiding (don't believe those obituaries).

Perkus cuts up the front page of the New York Times every morning and rearranges the pieces to reveal what's really going on. He laboriously retypes the New Yorker to read the articles without being influenced by the magazine's iconic typeface. "We've been living in a place that's a replica of itself," he tells Chase with feverish intensity, "a fragile simulacrum, full of gaps and glitches. A theme park, really! Meant to halt time's encroachment."

Lethem's exploration of this idea is initially witty and eccentric enough to keep the novel moving along. He's particularly adept at creating a version of the city that's just a few degrees off from reality, a dark if zany satire. The lower end of Manhattan is permanently encased in gray fog, a macabre allusion to 9/11, and the billionaire law-and-order mayor is an amalgamation of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Apartment buildings have been retrofitted as canine condos, and the New York Times offers a "War Free Edition" that usually runs a story of Chase's lovely fiancee, an astronaut trapped in orbit in a dying space capsule. A postmodern sculptor named Laird Noteless creates cavernous chasms and fjords around Manhattan like hideous emblems of Ground Zero. And a tiger that's escaped from the zoo terrorizes the city, but maybe that's just the mayor's cover story for a tunnel-drilling robot run amok.

These quirky elements are evocative and engaging, but Perkus and his handsome sidekick, Chase, spend an inordinate amount of time searching on eBay and around the city for a beautiful ceramic vase that may be the key to "another world . . . the fine real place where the shadowy, tattered cloak of delusion dissolved." A little of this straight-faced absurdity goes a long way, and Lethem goes far beyond a long way before finally dropping the whole magical vase episode.

The plot, such as it is, consists of Chase's ineffectual efforts to prevent Perkus from slipping further into the grip of his paranoia. But their relationship quickly inverts itself, and Chase realizes he's become "a sort of boyfriend, a gormless disciple" of this mad culture critic who's determined to prove that their city is a fake, an enactment, a clever reproduction.

As a reflection on modern alienation and the chronic loneliness that afflicts us in our faux world, this is beautifully, often powerfully done. When Perkus accuses Chase of being "the perfect avatar of the city's unreality," he's diagnosed a peculiarly contemporary condition. But how many extraneous and repetitive scenes does it take to convey the pathos of this condition? Who isn't weary by now of the "simulacrum" plot? It's all right for an hour or two if it's sexed up with enough violence, like, say, "The Matrix," and certainly Steven Millhauser spun an entrancing novel around the idea in "Martin Dressler," but a lot of water has run over this old philosophical tea bag. The characters that populate Chase's Manhattan never develop beyond their strident quirkiness, and even the intense friendship between Chase and Perkus remains more mysterious than poignant.

The payoff for all this work, a "Twilight Zone" revelation squeezed into the final 20 pages, is a thin reward for such sophisticated but prolonged antics. But fortunately, a CliffsNotes version of "Chronic City" appeared two years ago in a short story collection edited by Zadie Smith called "The Book of Other People." Lethem's contribution, titled "Perkus Tooth," delivers 80 percent of the effect of "Chronic City" for about 5 percent of the effort. That's a bargain nobody should pass up.

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