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Culture » Book Talk

Book Review: Chronic City By Jonathan Lethem

With Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem creates his own fairytale version of Manhattan.

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West Coasters might not be drawn to a novel that takes place exclusively on Manhattan, well actually a specific part of the island, but what if this Manhattan isn't the real Manhattan? That's essentially what Jonathan Lethem has done with Chronic City.

The book is strangely fantastical, taking place in Lethem's custom-crafted Manhattan - a city where an escaped tiger demolishes city blocks, the New York Times publishes a "War-Free" edition, snow falls in August and Marlon Brandon just might be alive. Chase Insteadman, a child actor turned B-list celebrity, serves as our narrator, leading us through his chance friendship with Perkus Tooth, a lazy-eyed former gonzo artist and rock critic who now spends his time battling cluster headaches, pontificating about old films and smoking marijuana... incredible amounts of marijuana.


In a way, this is a buddy story with the careless Chase becoming Perkus' somewhat reluctant pupil, distracting Chase from the fact that his astronaut fiancée, Janice, is trapped on an international space station thanks to strategically placed Chinese space mines. That's right, space mines. Hearing only from his fiancée by way of occasional letters - which are published in the Times for all to read - Chase falls into Perkus' world while gradually realizing that he is nothing more than a cocktail party novelty for the city's penthouse-dwelling millionaires.

Lethem, an occasional Rolling Stone contributor who first broke into the mainstream with his 1999 detective novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is at his weirdest, or very near his weirdest, with Chronic City. The characters' relationships and Lethem's commentary on New York's social elite ring authentic, and there's some actual rock music, filmic and literary criticism to be found, but near the end of the 450-plus-page novel, we find ourselves more in the realm of science fiction than the hipster fiction arena we entered in the first chapter. Some of this suspension of reality never quite makes sense, including the characters' obsessive desire for vaguely described vase-like objects called "chaldrons" and the inclusion of a fully furnished apartment building occupied only by dogs.

With strongly developed characters, and a slow-moving yet delightfully complex plot structure, Lethem keeps our attention as he shows off his version of a Manhattan shrouded in the fog of a permanent winter and clouded by plumes of pot smoke. Nothing quite seems real, but that seems to be Lethem's goal.

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