Jonathan Lethem (pronounced, in case you are curious as I was, leeth´-em) is one of those rare science fiction/fantasy authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Tom Robbins whose novels are shelved in the mainstream fiction sections of book stores. If you had read only his masterful Motherless Brooklyn, about a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, you might feel that justified. Yet beginning with his inaugural novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, the majority of the author’s work has involved genetic mutations, futuristic scenarios, space travel and other elements of the fantastic. This year’s Chronic City is an expedition into the surreal that takes place in an alternate Manhattan where winter has apparently come to stay, and either a giant tiger or a mad robotic tunneling machine or both are laying waste to the city.
Chase Insteadman, who narrates most of the story is a former child actor from the successful television comedy series, Martyr & Pesty, and lives on his residuals. But he has stayed in the upper-class NYC strata largely because of his notoriety as the fiancé of doomed astronaut Janice Trumbull, who is marooned on a space station seemingly forever, because of explosive orbiting Chinese mines that make return to earth impossible.
Trumbull’s playful love letters to Chase are published in the “War-free” version of the New York Times, and the romance is played out for all to see, making the out-of-work actor the darling of dinner parties and other social events.
Insteadman’s life changes when he chances to meet Perkus Tooth, a one-time rock critic for Rolling Stone who now writes liner notes for obscure DVDs and spends most of his time philosophizing and getting stoned on designer weed in his rent-controlled flat. Tooth, who has one eye that is constantly wondering and who suffers from chronic—just one of many references to the title word—migraine headaches, is a veritable encyclopedia of celebrated and obscure, real and invented, literary and media personalities and genres.
The wall-eyed Tooth initiates Chase into the joys of Marlon Brando (who may or may not be dead in this reality), Norman Mailer, scratchy cryptic LPs, 1000-page books by forgotten authors and gigantic cheeseburgers. Together they discover “chaldrons,” hypnotically beautiful ceramic jugs that become the holy grails that tie the characters and plot together as the story progresses. The chaldrons appear on Ebay auctions that Chase and his friend seem never able to win.
Through Perkus Tooth’s small and weird circle of friends Chase becomes romantically involved the Oona Laszlo. Laszlo, a top ghost writer of celebrity “autobiographies,” seems to be one of the most important symbols in the book: the autobiographies she writes aren’t real; she never allows their romance to be revealed to the public; she forbids Insteadman from her apartment; and they discover that the chaldrons, the giant tiger and the city, itself, may be illusions.
Lethem plays with the names of Chase Insteadman’s cronies, just as he plays with his life in Chronic City. Here are a few of them: Strabio Blandiana, the acupuncturist who has a photograph of a chaldron on his wall; Laird Noteless, the artist whose sculptures are massive chasms that dot the city’s landscape; Richard Abneg, the billionaire mayor’s assistant; Georgina Hawkmanaji, Richard’s fabulously wealthy girlfriend; Stanley Toothbrush (no relation to Perkus Tooth), Oona’s neighbor; and this is just the beginning. All of these bizarre names have meanings far beyond their strangeness. Some like Insteadman are pretty ovious. Others will require a bit more effort.
Among the authors frequently referred to in Chronic City is Dr. Seuss. And, although Horton Hears a Who is never specifically mentioned, that book and plot of the motion picture, The Matrix, fit in well with the philosophy that Perkus and Chase develop.
Probably it is not a good idea to say much more about what happens in the novel. Readers need to find for themselves how Lethem ties all of the convoluted subplots together for themselves. It will be a satisfying, weird, sometimes sad and sometimes joyous experience.
The one caveat I would add is that, like Chase Insteadman, I was born in the Midwest. But unlike Chase I have lived most of my life in Colorado. I’ve never been to New York City, alas! I had the continuous feeling as I read the book that I might be missing some inside jokes and not quite getting many subtle nuances. I have long been a fan of Lethem’s work, but I’m guessing those familiar with the Big Apple will find Chronic City all the tarter and all the sweeter.
Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.