Books of 2014, #9: Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem

(I’m so behind on these; I finished this book over a month ago. I’m also behind my 2013 pace significantly, but the biking is cutting into the reading, and the biking creates the “less Chet” phenomenon, so it is what it is.)

Lethem is an old favorite. I read As She Crawled Across The Table years ago, on the strength of an NPR review, and have followed his work since. He’s had great success, and has won literary awards in addition to a coveted MacArthur Fellowship. The resulting clout and the somewhat unfinished nature of Chonic City make me worry he’s crossed into the “un-editable” phase of his career. It’s the same idea as from this review of The Goldfinch back in February:

I’m no more privy to what went on behind the scenes in The Goldfinch’s journey from draft to publication than I am aware of the ins and outs of similar processes for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. But I know that all three of these novels (and there are many other examples) read as though their editor had been afraid to touch them, and had left early, baggy drafts unchanged.

Here, the problem isn’t so much that the manuscript is too long, but it absolutely is a bit cluttered when it comes to too-clever-by-half ideas seemingly wedged in on the strength of their own purported wit. That sounds super harsh, but I don’t mean it in that sense; Lethem is a very referential sort, peppering his work here with almost hypertextual links to pop culture artifacts that may or may not exist. It just feels like nobody told Lethem that he’d put in enough pepper already. That said, there’s a crazy amount of stuff going on here — nothing else has sent me to as many other learned reviews in years — so it’s not without reward by any means.

Chronic City is one of those love letters to Manhattan, but it’s a Manhattan that’s already gone it loves. Lethem misses the vibrant and artistic version from the 1980s, back when it was possible for weird artists and musicians to live on the island. I doubt they’ll be many such letters to the modern Manhattan of the 1%; Lethem’s bitter stand-in for the modern, wealthy-only Manhattan is a pristine apartment building restored and set aside for the city’s homeless dogs, about which more later.

Our notional hero, Chase Insteadman (the first of a host of improbable and Pynchonian names), is a former child actor (which is to say, he used to act; make of that what you will) engaged to Janice, an astronaut who is marooned on a space station with no obvious means of return due to “Chinese mines” in orbit. (Doubling down, we soon learn her health is imperiled as well.) Insteadman is an isolate: from Janice, obviously — she can write him, but for logistical reasons he cannot reply — but also from normal human discourse. Her letters, made public by NASA, have become nearly all he can remember about her. His residual income is enough to support him, which divorces him from everyday life, but it’s not enough to buy him entree into the world of wealth and privilege that he orbits as a sort of mascot (an object, an “extra man,” but not an actual participant). His isolation grows as the plot develops and we see other windows into his life.

Joining Insteadman early on is his sort-of friend and sort-of partner in crime, a quasi-employed writer and broadside artist named Perkus Tooth. Tooth is a Bangs-esque figure, hip without claiming hipness (think Hoffman’s Bangs in Almost Famous). Tooth is the source for much of the weirdness here; he has insane opinions on most everything (delightfully insisting that Brando is not dead, for example). He dresses like a throwback and lives in a rent-controlled apartment, thereby stuck in time in a fiscal sense as well as an aesthetic one.

The names just get weirder and weirder (not that I blame him): Laird Noteless is an artist specializing in enormous holes in the ground (no metaphor here!). Oona Laszlo is a ghostwriter, friend of Perkus’, and Chase’s secret lover. Strabo Blandiana is the acupuncturist to Chase and his wealthy pals. Another of Chase’s friends, Richard Abneg, is a former tenants’ right lawyer now working for the mayor undoing rent stabilization laws (chew on that); Abneg’s romantic partner is a Turkish heiress named Georgina Hawkmanaji that he always refers to as Hawkman.

(An excellent example of Lethem’s metaphorical seasoning: even with all this in play, he feels the need to have Abneg menaced by eagles; is it too literal to suggest he does so while hanging around with Turkeys?)

Much of the weirdness here comes from Tooth as he shows Chase into a sort of weird, parallel Manhattan. Tooth has become obsessed with objects called “chaldrons,” but the text gives no immediate hint that the word and the object are inventions of Lethem’s. The New York of Chronic City is full of references that might be real, that might just be something you’d never actually heard of instead of something Lethem has created (or, as in the case of Insteadman’s acting resume, a bit of both), and it gives the impression that the novel’s world is only a squint away from our own.

Lethem has also not been shy about inserting proxies for real world ideas so as to better lampoon them. For example, standing in for David Foster Wallace’s masterwork is a novel called “Obstinate Dust” by Ralph Warden Meeker; it becomes a minor MacGuffin in the story, but doing it once isn’t enough. Lethem drives the point home loudly when Oona mistakenly brings Tooth a copy of the also-fictional “Immaculate Rest,” a book of poems by Sterling Wilson Hobo instead (Tooth dismisses him as “a third-rate W. S. Merwin”). When called on it, she insists he should be thankful she didn’t return with “Adequate Lust,” which is apparently a how-to book.

These are throw-away lines to some people, I’m sure, but I have to believe most of Lethem’s audience is at least aware of David Foster Wallace, which places the whole riff too close to “look how clever I am” territory. This goes on and on; Henson’s creations wander through as the “Gnuppets,” named in a way that makes me wonder how much Lethem knows about free and open source software names. A proxy for Second Life/World of Warcraft shows up as the cheekily named “Yet Another World,” at first as a sidenote but later as a key point.

Tooth’s obsession with the chaldrons eventually leads our team to a weird sort of worship: they bid and bid on them when they surface on eBay, but with no intention of winning, even with access to Hawkman’s bankroll. Doing so drives them into an acquisitive frenzy even though they have no expectation they’ll ever actually acquire the object. The acquisition would establish a real connection, which can’t happen in a book obsessed with isolation. (It’d be hard to make these things more obviously MacGuffins, but that’s the way this book rolls.)

While all this is going on, Manhattan is menaced by an “escaped tiger” that is somehow never captured by the NYPD. It may be that the tiger is actually a renegade tunneling robot, under the control (?) of Abneg’s office and charged with damaging rent-controlled properties enough to force demotion, which would explain how a “tiger” could destroy buildings — but the whole tiger idea is blithely accepted, apparently, by most Manhattanites aside from Tooth. (As should be obvious, Lethem doesn’t miss the opportunity to lampshade the parallel between the “tiger’s” subterranean destruction and Noteless’ holes in the ground, though he’s more subtle about the “wild animal destroying village” angle that could’ve been drummed up here.)

Through all this, mourning of a certain kind of Manhattan predominates; it’s an isolating homesickness. That New York is Perkus Tooth, or at least Tooth represents the soul of it, back when artists could live in Manhattan. And that Manhattan is dead or dying. That he still lives there is an anomaly; Basquiat and Warhol and Reed are all gone, and we’re left with a fake version of the real city, now lost to time.

As the book draws closer to the end, revelations first hinted at and then explicitly stated make clear what drives Chase’s isolation: his complicity in a enormous public-relations lie. He and Janice were never lovers; he barely remembers her because he only barely met her, years before. He was drafted to be the mourning, worried boyfriend of a national hero who had already been killed by mines in orbit. Public Chase — the only Chase, perhaps, fittingly teased by Abneg as “Chase Unperson” — is a fake version of himself as a consequence. Janice as appears in the letters is entirely fictional, ghostwritten by Oona for public consumption. He lives in a fake version of Manhattan, with these fake people, pining for fake objects created in a virtual world. Perhaps only Tooth is authentic, and he withers and dies after losing his apartment to the rampaging “tiger”.

Who could feel connection in a life like that?

I don’t mean to say the book doesn’t resolve; it does, and some of the ways in which it finally comes together are satisfying. Ultimately, though, it feels too loose, still full of too many of Lethem’s darlings he couldn’t bear to cut to create a more focussed and finished work. I’m glad I read this, and I enjoyed it, but still felt like more could’ve been done with the same material.

Here’s another couple reflections on the work you might enjoy:

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