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 days...you can't, in all fairness, call such a novel a failure.