by Jonathan Lethem
Jul 02, 2021
After the first fifty pages, I really wanted to like this book. Lethem has a dry, semi-confused, pyrotechnical, and fearless way of writing sentences. It seems he often starts them not quite knowing where they are going to end. And that is exciting, because he lets you ride shotgun on his creative joyride. But, in “Chronic City”, his characters were pretty dead inside, and after a couple hundred pages it starts to get to me.
I saw Edward Norton’s really interesting and entertaining film adaptation of Lethem’s novel “Motherless Brooklyn” and that book is on my list to read, because Norton made his character burst with life. I recently read that Lethem has a form of Tourette’s syndrome, which of course was Norton’s fascinating idiosyncratic mannerism in the film.
“Chronic City” is nothing like the film “Motherless Brooklyn” even though it does take place in NYC, and both stories feature semi-fictional City power players. But the time period is different and so is the “lifeforce” of the people portrayed. Similarities aside, they are very different stories, and while I like that Lethem doesn’t repeat himself, I guess I need to root for somebody.
As I said, I found the “Chronic City” a bit frustrating. The setting is speculative and semi-imaginary, but that didn’t bother me. The characters are both repulsive and attractive, all with bizarre routines and backstories. Chase Insteadman, who is the narrator, is a former child actor on what was the most popular TV show of the 70s, but hasn’t worked in decades. He seems to have money, at least he never complains about it. His wife is an astronaut who is stuck in space and not likely to return because the Chinese have surrounded her space station with space mines. But that angle, (why are the Chinese doing it and what are we doing about it?) is never explained. His name, Insteadman, can lead you on a long line of musing - Instead of a man? - or Oprah’s boyfriend, Steadman, who in popular imagination seems what? Hapless? Invisible?
Chase lives in an imaginary Manhattan that is beset with all kinds of terrors - a giant tiger roams the subway, coming up occasionally to eat people, and an amorphous mysterious cloud envelopes whole sections of the city and seems to come and go. Chase is connected to the “important” people in Manhattan, and attends diners with the mayor, his staff, journalists, and artists. He walks all over the upper West Side, and I am sure for the locals it is fun to ID all his landmarks. His best friend, Perkus, is a perpetually stoned former art critic who collects albums and videos no one has ever heard of and only goes out of his apartment to eat at a restaurant on the ground floor of his building. Chase steals Perkus’s “girlfriend”, Oona, and occasionally receives steadily more hopeless and depressing messages from his wife on the space station. The City’s Society, in both the Press and at the social galas he attends laud him for his courage in holding up under the duress of his wife’s increasingly bleak fate. The dialogue is both spellbinding and again, frustrating, because on one level Lethem constantly fires out majestic verbal gymnastics, but on another “level” (reality) it is inane.
Chase is with Oona ...and is ‘suspended in her slippery limbs in some kind of interlude or afterglow’ ...”My theory is you can never overestimate how much sex the people having sex are having,” Oona said. “Or how little sex the people not having sex are not having.” “The rich get richer?” I suggested and she said, “Yes and the healthy healthier.” Then I’d said “And the -” and she put her finger to my lips.’
I mentioned Lethem’s Tourettes, because it is kind of an “ah hah!” for me trying to understand his characters. Insteadman and his friends are very “in” in terms of their connection to the power and the glamour of the city, but at the same time very “out”. They feel hopeless and fear losing out or missing the next big event. I think it likely that Lethem deeply understands social isolation, (in spite of great success). The one character who is confident and “in charge” is the mayor’s assistant who has been tasked with fixing the city’s problems, such as the giant tiger (that shows up and kills everyone at Perkus’s restaurant, which will cause his apartment to be condemned by the city and put Perkus out on the street). The Mayor’s assistant is a typical NYC blowhard who brandishes an “I got this under control” attitude, but the results always say otherwise. Insteadman despises him but still clings to him, and needs him.
Anyway, Lethem is a very well regarded and highly praised novelist. He writes about NYC and maybe that helps. He is imaginative and endlessly verbally inventive and Chronic City kept me reading even as I sort of lost interest in the story. It is a sad story. Chase, lives out a life I can’t imagine living. I keep hoping he will at least try to escape from his Upper West Side trap. I kept hoping maybe Wojciehowicz and Dietrich from Barney Miller would take him back to the 12th Precinct and straighten him out, but that would have been another story.