Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chronic City

This seems to be the year in which my favorite writers publish novels that don't make any sense. I'm talking about the new Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City, an exhaustingly unmoored narrative about weird male friendship, set in an alternate-universe Upper East Side. There's lots to like here, especially if, like me, you like Lethem--an escaped tiger wreaking havoc, giant urban conceptual-art pits in the ground, a chocolate wind, a mayor with apparently magic powers, a 9/11-like event that left the towers standing but covered downtown completely with a mysterious gray fog. This is a world that mingles real pop cultural referents (Lou Reed, Marlon Brando) with familiar-sounding simulacra: A 1000-page novel called Obstinate Dust, by someone named Ralph Warden Meeker; a band called Chthonic Youth; a children's TV program called The Gnuppet Show.

Our guide through this world is washed-up child TV star Chase Insteadman, whose first person narrative focuses primarily on a doomed former rock critic named Perkus Tooth, and all his wild ideas. They pal around with Richard Abneg, former squatter and presently the mayor's real estate fixer. There are some women for these guys to moon about (Chase's doomed (again) astronaut fiance Janice, and his earthbound bitchy ghostwriter girlfriend Oona; Richard's socialite lover Georgia; Perkus's doomed (yet again) waitress crush), but mostly this is a book about guys being friends in New York.

Oh, yeah, and pot. There's lots of it. Almost everyone is high almost all of the time. While high, they bid on stuff on eBay, get acupuncture, discuss conspiracies, and eat hamburgers. It is a bit like a baked Seinfeld.

If that doesn't sound so bad, it isn't. Lethem is funny and inventive, and as with Lorrie Moore's incomprehensible novel, I found myself perfectly happy to return to Chronic City and read a few more pages. But when you get right down to it, this is a stoner book. It just goes on and on, folding over on itself, referring to itself, creating mini-mythologies out of its intricate, chaotic parts. We hear of mysterious detail after mysterious detail, conspiracy after conspiracy, and it will not surprise you to learn that Everything Is Connected, and Nothing Is What It Seems. The problem is, nothing seems to mean anything outside the smoky self-refential boundaries of the book. Here is a typical late passage:

In my brain Sterling Winston Hobo was to Ralph Warren Meeker as Florian Ib was to Morrison Groom. Or maybe they were all the same person! Was Noteless involved in designing the tiger? [...] The secret lay outside my understanding. Oona Laszlo might have my existential puzzle's edge pieces hidden on her person somewhere, but I'd never make her admit it. I could only forumlate bizarre accusations: for instance, that Oona was preventing anyone from reading Meeker's Obstinate Dust. This was obvious, since she'd tricked me into chucking one copy into Urban Fjord, and then pretended to forget the title when Perkus requested a second.

You can tell why Michiko Kakutani hated it. It's as if Lethem set out to create the book that would most offend her sensibilities--a postmodern, self-mythologizing Dork Side Of The Moon. She actually called it "lame," right there in the Times!

I wouldn't go that far--as a Lethem superfan, I am happy to take the bad with the good. There is something perversely satisfying about these 467 pages, in their audacious unlikeliness; you almost can't believe what you're reading. Personally, I lived Chronic City on the sofa, laid up with the flu, and it has inhabited my dreams and disrupted my sleep for several can't, in all fairness, call such a novel a failure.


KazQazwsxedc said...

Hard to say without reading it, but that passage you quoted sounds like an author taking notebook plot possibilities and uncertainties about what he has created, and working them into the fabric of the novel.

jon said...

It sounds to me like someone who has failed to transcend his influences(Pynchon, Delillo, etc).

jrlennon said...

There is definitely a hefty serving of Pynchon in there, which I must admit doesn't please me. At his best, Lethem is very funny and inventive (As She Climbed Across The Table, Girl In Landscape); this book feels like one of those bloated to three times its size.

I suppose I'm unfair to label that passage typical--it's more of an extreme symptom of a generally more subtle problem.

Kevin said...

I read about half of it. I enjoyed it well enough, I suppose, and didn't consciously stop reading it. I guess I was just a little bored after a while and found myself reading other things. I mean, how many pages were devoted to that eBay auction? I was really looking forward to this one, too. Lethem has written some of my favorite books. Still, I wouldn't say I disliked reading it, so maybe I'll go back and finish it.

jrlennon said...

You have my permission not to finish it, if that's something you desire!

The eBay section went on for really quite a long time...

Stephen said...

I love Lethem too but sometimes he seems too conscious of what a good writer he is. That happens with pianists too. It ends up sounding like they are showing off the suppleness of their arpeggios. I even found that in parts of Motherless Brooklyn.

jon said...

I like him too, he is not just smart but a warm writer, in the sense that there is a dimension of feeling to his knowingness and irony. but what bugs me is he sometimes writes as a fan and a collector. i have sympathy of course both as a person and a writer, since i am a fan and a collector! But at his worse, he reminds me of guys in high school who could recite all of the monty python routines.

jrlennon said...

I think jon's characterization of Lethem is spot on. My fandom is at least partly predicated on the notion that Lethem's writing seems to flatter certain obscure parts of's as if my own nerdiest self detached from my body and became super famous. Lethem is a kind of--in the words of Anthony Michael Hall--king of the dipshits...and I mean that in a completely respectful way.

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