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.
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 ...
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 (884 words).
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!
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