Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Vintage Contemporaries, 2009
A perpetual, impenetrable gray fog shrouds Wall Street and the rest of lower Manhattan. Artic temperatures chill the inhabitants of the city and fierce blizzards blanket the streets well into May. Above the skyscrapers, American and Russian astronauts orbit in a doomed space station, cut off from Earth by a deadly ring of Chinese mines. Meanwhile an enormous tiger stalks the streets and avenues, undermining buildings and wreaking havoc. No one has actually seen the tiger, but the Mayor’s office issues periodic reports and its traces crater neighborhoods all over the city.
In Jonathan Lethem’s New York, it’s impossible to know what’s real, what’s imagined and what’s fabricated by the insidious powers that be. Chronic City shows us this enigmatic city through the eyes of Chase Insteadman, refugee from Indiana and former child star on a classic TV series, now living an untethered existence as a perennial guest at dinner parties of Manhattan’s rich and powerful. Handsome, well-spoken, and unbelievably clueless and uncritical, Chase drifts through his mostly comfortable life without asking too many questions. His popularity is partly due to the fact that he’s engaged to marooned astronaut Janice Trumbull. His reactions to her tragic isolation offer a diversion over cocktails. In fact, he can barely remember Janice. Despite his guilt about his infidelity, he’s engaged in a torrid, difficult affair with a prickly ghostwriter named Oona Lazlo.
The setting is surreal. One might even label Chronic City science fiction. To me, however, the book is fundamentally a love story. Chase thinks he’s in love with Oona, but his true preoccupation is with the brilliant, cryptic cult figure Perkus Tooth. A dandified scarecrow of a man who favors wrinkled velvet suits, Perkus ventures outside the fortress of his rent-controlled apartment on Eighty-fourth Street only to indulge in cheeseburgers and coke at the diner down the block. Surrounded by art, books, and videos—stimulated by vast amounts of the most potent pot Chase has ever smoked—Perkus spins wild tales of conspiracy and transcendence that hold Chase rapt.
Chase’s fascination with Perkus struck me as the most believable part of Chronic City. I’ve personally experienced that sort of sudden attraction to people in my own life, people whose energy and charisma simply stop you in your tracks. Chase enters Perkus’ small circle, and under Tooth’s influence, he starts to question things he’d simply accepted previously. At the same time, he comes to realize how vulnerable his peculiar and insightful mentor really is. As the situation in the city deteriorates, Chase tries to save his friend from the dire consequences. His efforts trigger important changes in his own reality.
I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Lethem’s work since I read Gun, With Occasional Music more than a decade ago, so I was predisposed to like this book. Certainly it exhibits the same fertile and disturbing imagination that characterizes Lethem’s other novels. As the tale became darker, though, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I had to force myself to finish the story, and I’m glad that I did; though the ending could not be called exactly happy, it has a sort of soothing symmetry, with the satisfaction of some secrets revealed.
I probably couldn’t fully appreciate the novel, though, because I do not have a deep knowledge of New York City. I also didn’t recognize many of Perkus’ cultural references. Indeed, I couldn’t tell how many related to real people and how many were fabricated. Of course, this is part of the book’s point. What do we mean by “real”?
Chase provides a mirror for the madness around him. Seeing things through his eyes, the reader experiences his typical bewilderment and occasional passion. Unfortunately, there are several chapters where Lethem switched to Perkus Tooth’s point of view. I understand his motives; it would have been difficult to convey some aspects of the plot without this shift. However, I thought this narrative choice weakened the impact of the novel.
Overall, Chronic City is an original, frenetic, disconcerting tale, alternating between existential anxiety and manic glee. Though it was published eight years ago, it vividly depicts our current era of “fake news”. Despite its fantasy elements, Lethem’s New York feels all too familiar. Readers will wander its tiger-ravaged streets at their own risk.