I discovered Jonathan Lethem purely by accident. I hung out in bookstores long before I was paid to do so, though in 2005 my reading habits were decidedly more four-colour and periodical in nature, as I continued amassing the 2,000+ issue comic collection I’ve mentioned in these pages before. So it was no surprise Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude called out to me [titled after Superman’s Arctic hideaway]. I tore through the thing in about a week, and even though I found the linguistic choices a little difficult, and ultimately found Dylan a bit of a whiny prat [I get it, no one’s realer than you, Brooklyn we go hard, blahbluhblah] the book’s combination of comic book lore, racial crossover and nascent hip-hop culture won me over. I still recommend that book to people in the store today.
Since then, I’ve been through most of Lethem’s work, with the exception of a few early, explixitly scifi novels. Motherless Brooklyn is still my favourite novel, The Happy Man my favourite short story, and that essay in The Disappointment Artist about seeing Star Wars however many times my favourite nonfiction piece, possibly ever by anyone.
So I was thrilled when a package showed up at work for me with an advance copy of Lethem’s new novel Chronic City. His previous novel You Don’t Love Me Yet didn’t really set me on fire [it’s too hard to write about music, and I never understood why Lethem felt he had to write the novel…like Murakami’s After Dark, it was more like a catch-all for ideas he didn’t know what else to do with] so I was excited to take another crack at him.
Shifting his locale of choice from Brooklyn to Manhattan-that-is-not-our-Manhattan, Chronic City follows Chase Insteadman, a former child actor who now plays the role of despondent fiance to Janice Trumbull, an astronaut trapped on the International Space Station, which has been permanently separated from Earth by a line of Chinese orbital mines. He wanders the city doing the odd bout of voiceover work for the Criterion Collection and waiting for the letters Janice sends from the station, which are then published in the New York Times [war free edition, of course].
It’s at the Criterion offices that Chase meets Perkus Tooth, a former critic and street artist who writes unsolicited liner notes, smokes a lot of pot and stays mostly sequestered in his filthy 84th Street apartment, leaving only to grab cheeseburgers at the diner a block away. Devoid of anything else to do with his time except collect residuals from his sitcom days and wait for his next missive from Janice, Chase starts hanging out at Perkus’s apartment, smoking an equal amount of pot and trying to play dutiful student as Perkus constructs elaborate theories on the significance of everything from Brandon, Mailer and the Muppets [or Gnuppets, as they’re called in this world]. Rounding out the motley crew are Perkus former college classmate Richard Abneg, a former lefty activist and current fixer for the city’s billionaire mayor, and Oona Laszlow, who once glued up Tooth’s street art and now ghostwrites memoirs for WNBA players and Nobel winning physicists.
Like I said, the book takes place in a world that is like but is not ours: a gray fog surrounds Manhattan for so long its residents begin to doubt the world beyond it, fjords are placed in the middle of the city and a giant, two-storey tall tiger may or may not be wandering the urban landscape, disrupting subway service and demolishing buildings. Lethem uses the parallel world to sling shots at everything from the Twin Towers memorial project to Second Life to David Foster Wallce [a giant book called Obstinate Dust gets chucked into the aforementioned fjord for being too frustratingly difficult to read]. All the while, Perkus is constructing his theories on what it all really means, and imparting them on whoever will listen.
The problem is, Perkus is a douchebag. Chase [or Lethem] wants the reader to care about him so badly, but it just never fires off. Lethem’s succeeded in creating a vibrant character in the sense that you can’t wait to be rid of him and his pontificating and assurance that he knows more than everyone around him. If you went to a liberal arts college, you know Perkus Tooth, he was the turd in your English or Philosophy or PoliSci class who had to comment on fucking everything, then went out to the campus square and held court over the other stoner burnouts, preaching that the education they were paying for was teaching them nothing. By the time Perkus’s ultimate destiny is decided in the book’s closing moments, it’s a relief to be rid of him. Spoiler alert.
Lethem seems to have a bit of a boner for the Perkus type. He immediately reminded of Carl, the complainer from You Don’t Love Me Yet, who’s supposed to be so earthshatteringly brilliant it makes total sense that young Lucinda would fall in love with him. Only it never does. Perkus has the same issue. The book feels like Lethem is trying to make big statements about our present and future, and how bad it’s sucking compared to what has come before, but he relies on Perkus to get these points across, while being narrated by Chase [aside from one jarring third-as-first-person interlude when Perkus goes to an acupuncturist]. While I like what Lethem’s trying to say, ultimately I felt like the book failed in execution, and even the ‘twist’ at the book’s conclusion felt anticlimactic, which may have been the point.
Still, Lethem keeps me as a reader because of the soundness of his ideas, despite the misfires in his execution.