Summary and book reviews of Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City

By Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: Oct 2009,
    480 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2010,
    480 pages.

    Publication Information

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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About this Book

Book Summary

Chase Insteadman, a handsome, inoffensive fixture on Manhattan's social scene, lives off residuals earned as a child star on a beloved sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancée, Janice Trumbull, is trapped by a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station, from which she sends him rapturous and heartbreaking love letters. Like Janice, Chase is adrift, she in Earth's stratosphere, he in a vague routine punctuated by Upper East Side dinner parties.

Into Chase's cloistered city enters Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning. Perkus's countercultural savvy and voracious paranoia draw Chase into another Manhattan, where questions of what is real, what is fake, and who is complicit take on a life-shattering urgency. Along with Oona Laszlo, a self-loathing ghostwriter, and Richard Abneg, a hero of the Tompkins Square Park riot now working as a fixer for the billionaire mayor, Chase and Perkus attempt to unearth the answers to several mysteries that seem to offer that rarest of artifacts on an island where everything can be bought: Truth.

Like Manhattan itself, Jonathan Lethem's masterpiece is beautiful and tawdry, tragic and forgiving, devastating and antic, a stand-in for the whole world and a place utterly unique.

Excerpt
Chronic City

I first met Perkus Tooth in an office. Not an office where he worked, though I was confused about this at the time. (Which is itself hardly an uncommon situation, for me.) his was in the headquarters of the Criterion Collection, on Fifty-Second Street and Third Avenue, on a weekday afternoon at the end of summer. I'd gone there to record a series of voice- overs for one of Criterion's high- end DVD reissues, a "lost" 1950s film noir called The City Is a Maze. My role was to play the voice of that film's director, the late émigré auteur Von Tropen Zollner. I would read a series of statements culled from Zollner's interviews and articles, as part of a supplemental documentary being prepared by the curatorial geniuses at Criterion, a couple of whom I'd met at a dinner party.

In drawing me into the project they'd supplied me with a batch of research materials, which I'd browsed unsystematically, as well as a working version of their reconstruction of the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. When do you think the action of the novel occurs? Is there a reason the time was left vague? Is this the "real" New York City?

  2. At what point did you begin to suspect that Chase Insteadman was living a fiction? At what point in their story do you think Perkus Tooth understood that Chase had been deceived about his role?

  3. Can you accept that Oona Laszlo is responsible for the letters attributed to Janice Trumbull? Is it possible, as a writer, to create another human being more generous, large-hearted, and responsive than yourself?

  4. What is the meaning of the wild animals that intrude on the lives of these Manhattanites -- the eagles, the tiger? Do they have anything to do with the weather?

  5. Have you ever felt that the place where ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

If Jonathan Lethem's novels were food they would pile the pounds on those who consume them, not from empty calories but from a rich feast of extravagant fare, like lobster in drawn butter or Eggs Benedict swimming in creamy hollandaise. It invariably takes me a long time to read his books because every page bursts with lush language. Lethem uses words and tosses reality around with awe-inspiring creativity. With the possible exception of Motherless Brooklyn (which I loved and re-read to savor the sheer sumptuousness of its prose) Chronic City is his best yet.   (Reviewed by Donna Chavez).

Full Review Members Only (884 words).

Media Reviews
The Washington Post

[U]ltimately, these perfectly choreographed sentences compose a tedious reading experience in which redundancy substitutes for development and effect for profundity.

New York Magazine

Lethem has often sought to interweave the realistic and the fantastic; in Chronic City the result is nearly seamless.

The Wall Street Journal

[A] prosopographical investigation of New York City by way of a handful of strange, unclassifiable characters (and some remarkable writing).

Entertainment Weekly

The book's zonked philosophizing about the nature of reality wears a little thin, but Lethem's claustrophobic vision of a world where everything is connected and nothing is as it seems proves both funny and frightening.

Esquire

The novel functions much like Manhattan used to – a mad scramble of connections made and, more often, missed…make(s) a reader ache for a city long gone.

Vanity Fair

Poly-genre-loving fanboy Jonathan Lethem blasts readers into the fantastic realm of Chronic City.

The Daily Beast

A sprawling book about pop culture and outer space…realistic and fantastic, serious and funny, warm and clear eyed. One of the new generation’s most ambitious writers, Lethem again offers a novel that deals with nothing less important than the difference between truth and lies. And some stories about good cheeseburgers.

GQ

A stellar, multi-layered novel.

Publishers Weekly

Though Chronic City at times requires patience, it is a luxuriously stylized paean to Gotham City's great fountain of culture that is slowly drying up. Like the city itself, the book sways toward the maximal, but its prose shines like our skyline at sunset.

Library Journal

[F]ans of Lethem's work (e.g., Motherless Brooklyn) will be rewarded for their patience with insight into the truthfulness of reality.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Lethem's most ambitious work to date, and his best since Motherless Brooklyn (2001).

Reader Reviews
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Beyond the Book

Touring New York City
Everyone knows New York! Even if you've never visited you've probably read about it in books such as Jonathan Letham's (which are all set in the City). If you haven't read about it, the chances are that one of the countless TV shows such as NYPD Blue, Friends, and Sex and the City has introduced you to a variety of its streets, apartment buildings, alleys and restaurants. Even if you missed these, you've probably seen it portrayed in some of the hundreds of movies filmed there, from classics such as Breakfast at Tiffany's and Barefoot in the Park to more recent films such as the Spiderman movies. At the very least, the chances are you've had your present and future financial status affected by Wall Street!

There ...

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