The madness of the story mimics that of the city

12-11-2009

If you thought Maastricht–Amsterdam was a hell of a commute, try this for a long-distance relationship: Chase Insteadman’s fiancée Janice is an astronaut and her spaceship, unmoored somehow, is stuck in space.

Chase, a onetime childhood actor living off the revenue of his erstwhile career, wanders around Manhattan collecting sympathetic smiles and understanding, heartfelt gazes. All of New York is well aware of Janice’s whereabouts, what with the spaceship being an above-the-fold saga for the New York Times and other media outlets.

The spaceship is one story that keeps the city enthralled in Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel. Other major narrative threads running through this rambling, hyper-realist, off-the-grid-yet-on-it saga are: a gigantic tiger roaming the city’s grid and occasionally causing a building or a subway line to collapse, and a mysterious, permanent fog that has descended over downtown Manhattan and that’s driving Wall Street professionals to the brink of suicide.

Lethem is a native of Brooklyn, and hitherto his most important books – including Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude – were set there. (Lethem, together with authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Ames, is habitually referred to as “one of the Jonathans of Brooklyn”.)

In Chronic City, it’s Manhattan’s Upper East Side where all the action goes down; not the old-moneyed, fancy Upper East Side of Madison Avenue and the Museum Mile, but rather the backwater blocks on the Eastern edge, close to the river but far from the subway lines and the expensive boutiques. It’s this part of town that Chase inhabits, as does his new acquaintance, Perkus Tooth: a cross-eyed, over-intelligent, super-skinny, former rock critic who subsists on a diet of weed and burgers and for whom everything is, somehow, connected – from the font of The New Yorker to Marlon Brando to the city’s mayor and his plans to end rent-controlled housing to the havoc-causing tiger.

Chronic City chronicles the year in which Chase meets and befriends Perkus, gets drawn into the latter’s life and wondrous mind, forgets about his fiancée on the other side of the ozone layer as he falls in love with a ghostwriter named Oona Laszlo, and discovers the truth about Manhattan and his particular role in that city.

This may sound slightly crazy and over the top, and so it is: Chronic City is a rambling novel that frantically crosses back and forth between themes and stories, while its characters try to understand – chase – some greater, fundamental truth that keeps slipping away from them, like a Fata Morgana or the booty in a videogame.

But the characters are endearing and their quest is engaging, and in a way the madness of the story mimics that of the city in which it is set. Adventurous and slightly off, Chronic City is a good read for those long intercity train rides that we are want to make.

 

Lynn Berger

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