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.
It would be easy to assume that former child star Chase Insteadman is the main character here just because he narrates the story. On the contrary, I think the protagonist is Manhattan, the eponymous Chronic City. Indeed, for all the narrative's purposes, nothing exists outside the island's perimeter. Not a single character utters the name of a locale other than those within Manhattan's borders. Even when speaking about Chase's space-quarantined fiancée, Janice Trumbull, they never say she is making America proud. They say instead that she is making Manhattan proud. The only references to locations outside New York City are oblique allusions to nationality, as in, Chinese or Russian, etc. As Perkus says, "No body - that's no body - really believes in the news beyond the boundaries of their neighborhood or pocket universe. Manhattan is one of those, you know, a pocket universe."
The focus of the novel shifts from Insteadman's nebulous existence to a crazy plot in which he, his loony friend Perkus Tooth, Perkus's somewhat less loony friend Oona Laszlo and even New York's mayor and his minion Richard Abneg become instruments in the City's evolution. The net result is that the city's destiny rests in the slippery, drug-addled hands of this ragtag group, none of whom have much of a life - or sense of the real world.
In Lethem's Manhattan people can easily deny unpleasant realities by, for example, opting to read the "war free" edition of the New York Times. Chase is described as the ultimate amnesiac American who, "never can imagine anything actually ever happened before [he] wandered along." He lives in a town that personifies the A-type personality, but he doesn't work. He aspires to nothing. Neither do Perkus, who lives "as much inside a conundrum" as he does a city, or Oona, a ghostwriter who prefers not to know her subjects. And yet they all travel in circles frighteningly close to the wealthy and powerful people who make decisions about the city's welfare. Scary, huh?
This review was originally published in October 2009, and has been updated for the August 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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