Thursday, October 21, 2010

On "Chronic City" by Jonathan Lethem ***

Chronic City is a maddening book. Imagine a combination of Jack Kerouac obsession with Thomas Pynchon insanity, and in a sense you have what this book is. I'm not talking the Kerouac of the long journey down a road but the Kerouac down a long journey with his friend Neal Cassidy. So too Letham's narrator (Chase Insteadman) obsesses over a rock critic (and social theorist) named Perkus Tooth. Note the names here, for Letham plays tribute to Pynchon in this manner too, providing us with names that seem more theme and character based than real.

The city in this book is New York, in a long winter that stretches into summer, falling prey to a tiger on the loose (or is it a machine let loose or a giant monstrous animal or . . . ?). There are vases that everyone seems mad to obtain but that no one seems to be able to (who, one wonders, are these millionaires who outbid everyone at the last minute on E-bay?). There is some kind of tragedy happening in outer space, where Chase's astronaut fiancee is stuck and dying of foot cancer.

And there is Chase himself, a has-been child actor who is caught up in all of the drama and who the city seems to hold some interest in, as the poor lover cast adrift back on earth. Only nothing is as it seems, and the chronic sickness that seems to infect Perkus is about to infect Chase himself--or is it a sickness? Paranoia is rife in this text, ala Pynchon. And drugs--can it be any wonder that a hallucinogen is the drug of choice (and liberally abused)?

One thing Letham seems to be pointing to is the way we have ourselves become products of our media. Not only our worldview and our interests but our very own identities are mediated by the media, to the point that it is impossible to tell one from another. Can a vase pull us to a higher level of being or is such a claim merely something foisted on us by Internet news and by fashion? And if it's the latter and we still manage to somehow find a higher essence of being in the object of art, what exactly have we found? Is what we've found genuine? Can anything even be genuine? And does it matter?

The text is one of ideas. But while some passages, such as one in which Chase, Perkus, and their friend Richard have to confront hospital bureaucracy are laugh out loud funny, I found myself more often thinking about the themes or wondering where exactly where this story was going--or whether it was going--than caring so much about the characters. I guess, if one isn't as smitten with Perkus as the narrator, one isn't likely to be as intrigued by the narrator's obsession with him. While the novel is brilliantly written on a sentence-by-sentence level, this lack of personal connection for me made the text a more difficult slog than might have otherwise been expected. And the wild excesses of the plot--something I find in a lot of contemporary fiction now (I'm thinking, for example, of Fiona Maazel's Last Last Chance)--certainly didn't help to ground it in a way that I could identify with even the time or place.

The book was recommended to me by a friend. Or should I say it was pushed at me by a friend? No matter, I dutifully picked it up. And I see the appeal. New York. Intellectual discussions among intellectual misfit friends. But how many outside of the Chronic City really care? A few, I suppose, since the book did moderately well, but I wasn't one of them.

No comments: