The freewheeling eighth novel by Brooklyn’s Jonathan Lethem takes place in an alternate-universe version of Manhattan, though the degree of its unreality is never clearly defined. Even its residents, like Chase Insteadman, a square-jawed former child actor still living the high life on never-ending residuals, aren’t sure what to believe anymore. Could an escaped tiger really be demolishing entire buildings? Did Marlon Brando fake his death? And what about Chase’s astronaut fiancée—is she still stuck aboard the International Space Station, surrounded by a ring of deadly Chinese mines?
Answers of any kind are scarce, especially when the New York Times is so toothless that it publishes a “War Free” edition. Even the city seems to shift and reconfigure itself at will; as Chase thinks, “We only pretend to live on something as orderly as a grid.”
This ever-present cognitive fog helps explain why Chase falls in with a culture-hoarding recluse and former rock critic named Perkus Tooth. For Perkus, the answers to all mysteries worth solving can be found in a few sacred, “talismanic” pieces of media: an unreleased Werner Herzog documentary here, an impenetrable doorstop of a novel called Obstinate Dust there. Marijuana helps, too.
A small troupe of eccentrics and a broad sense that something is rotten in the state of New York are all Lethem needs to spark this wild story to life. Even without a clearly defined narrative path to follow, Chronic City is so clever and sharply written that it never needs to justify its myriad detours, and its enviable intimacy with fringe film, music, and literature confirms Lethem’s status as one of America’s coolest writers.
And two long, beautiful panoramic sequences—one describing a posh dinner party at the mayor’s townhouse, the other showing Perkus gradually taking a shine to a three-legged pit bull—remind us that the author can go macro as well as micro.
With its pot-addled detective streak, as well as its ridiculously named cast (see: Oona Laszlo, Strabo Blandiana), Chronic City bears more than a passing resemblance to another recent novel by a New York heavyweight: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. In fact, Lethem often does the master one better, fleshing out Pynchon’s cartoon power chords with more emotional nuance. This is one novel to make time for.
Doubleday, 480 pp, $34, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, January 14, 2010)