Chronic City: Review of Jonathan Lethem’s Eighth Novel

There was recently an interesting discussion at The Quarterly Conversation about what constitutes good literary criticism. J.C. Hallmann suggests that his fellow critics ought to approach literature not in the way critics do, but in the way writers do, in that writers are “perfectly comfortable saying that they simply liked a book—or disliked it…. Writers set out to celebrate the work rather than exhaust it….” In response, the editors quote Harold Bloom, who “gives us a phrase that is quite possibly the ideal definition of a critic: ‘the strong reader, whose readings will matter to others as well as to himself.’”

Reading these essays helped me find a way to write about Jonathan Lethem’s eighth novel, Chronic City. I think from these essays I took the permission I needed to plainly state here three things that I know already in my head and heart. First, I am not the strong reader I might like to be. Second, I found Chronic City tedious, boring, and uninspiring. Third, the second might find cause in the first.

To skip to the punchline, I think Chronic City can entertain readers and writers who are willing to patiently dissect its meaning and formulate its connections, who happily place ideas and themes on pedestals in whose shadows lurk plot and character. All of which I sincerely believe is fine: please, have at it. You may have a remarkable relationship with City. Consider this review a recommendation. Once you finish the novel, I suggest you lead in to the post-novel coffee-shop conversation by reading Hari Kunzru’s clear-headed review in Bookforum. He unpacks allusions and describes narrative strategies in a way that, if I liked the book, I would love to do. Funny thing is, Kunzru never makes it clear whether he actually enjoyed the book. Let me be completely transparent: with Lethem’s work, I approach it with expectations. I expect spice. In this case, I found the book flavorless and cold. As such, I found myself actively disengaged from the substance of the novel.

It hurts to write that. This book really should kick all sorts of ass: City is narrated by Chase Insteadman, a former child actor and current Manhattan social fixture, famous as much for his former fame as for his engagement to Jane Trumbull, an astronaut stuck on a space station behind a veil of Chinese space mines. While she writes uplifting open letters to Chase, and, by extension, the world at large, about the hells of space, Chase smokes pot and talks movies with Perkus Tooth, a social critic, film guru, and general outsider weirdo. Through Perkus, Chase meets Oona, a ghost writer of cheap celebrity autobiographies.

Chase and Oona sleep together between bouts of hanging out with the city’s social elite. A self-aware robot runs pell-mell back and forth under the city, occasionally surfacing to smash stuff to to bits. The financial district is covered in a permanent, unreal gray fog, and there’s an artist making gigantic park-sized installations that testify to the power of the void over the human spirit. And everything might be a computer simulation, maybe.

Real talk: once you put Chinese space mines in your novel, your reader should, fundamentally, categorically, be physically glued to your novel. The reader should be incapable of putting it down. I found myself instead reluctant to pick it up, as though it were less a novel and more a…Chinese space mine.

One big problem is that Lethem mutes all the totally sweet stuff with an orchestra’s worth of pot talk about pretty much whatever. Reality is the story we tell ourselves. Marlon Brando is a creature of the collective consciousness. Movies are so moving. Celebrity is weird. Etcetera. While I have never smoked pot, I doubt you need an advanced degree in radical drugology to recognize that there is a big fat hazy wall between people who are high and people who are not, between the party and the sucker driving the party to White Castle at three in the morning. The book simply never takes off, casting its attentions pretty much anywhere but the parts which are truly engaging.

It’s disappointing, because even from the disengaged vantage point of the bored-to-tears reader, you can see Lethem’s bright mind at work in the novel’s inner gears. He sets up gobs of truly rich material, all of which should be so begging the reader to mine it: the creation of whatever passes for reality through mutual agreement and/or uncontrollable exterior forces, the role of art and technology in exposing the abyss along the edge of which all people walk, the good old standard social conflicts of class and race, explored so enjoyably in The Fortress of Solitude. Lethem buries it all in a slow- to non-moving narrative that feels maddeningly counter-productive. It would be fine if, as it appears intent on doing, the book siphoned Gravity’s Rainbow through Philip K. Dick. It never occurs to me to be bothered by the pot in Pynchon. But it filters all the fun out in the process of influence.

Worst yet, there is pretentiousness here, in how highly (ahem) the novel values its material and its approach. I should note that, in the same way I have never smoked pot, I have never been to New York. So perhaps it is my uninformed, irrational view that has me feeling somehow resented when, on the seventh page of the book, I read that:

To live in Manhattan is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interleave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes that pavement-demolishing workmen periodically wrench open to the daylight and to our passing, disturbed glances. We only pretend to live on something as orderly as a grid.

Lovely bit of description aside—while not to the same sort of stylistic expansion effect he undertook in As She Climbed Across the Table, Lethem does tend to favor this slightly more figurative, word-loving sort of writing over the terser, tighter prose of much of his other work—it is moments like this that cause readers like me to be pretty much over the whole New York novel thing. Fine place though it may be, but New York holds no monopoly on “chaotic intricacy.” New York may sweat the pixie dust and magic beans that sprout the fertile shoots upon which writers subsist, but so does any square foot of land on which a person treads. Complexity should never feel so dreadfully cliché.

Perhaps, though, it is more than my flyover-country upbringing that has me feeling held at arm’s length by the novel. The story has the effect of treating the reader as an outsider looking for a way in. It rambles. It feels improvisational. Conversation leading to conversation, let-down leading to let-down. And while I suspect there is deep structure in play, I feel the novel could have perhaps learned something from one of the key rules of creating entertaining improv, which is to never answer a question with a “no.” The novel seems to toss out one no after another, left and right, without payout: no, your loves are not real, no, your relationships are not real, no, your reality is not real. No, you can not confirm any of this is true. Or not true. To be strung along is frustrating. To reach frayed ends is maddening.

Chronic City certainly continues Lethem’s career-long project of rubbing the weird against the normal to see what sparks may fly. But from that perspective, it fails because it never makes the weird real or the real weird enough. For that, it becomes his least entertaining novel. Frustrating for not being what it might have been, City represents a disappointment to fans and a poor introduction for first-time readers and, in the end, I find myself, not the text, exhausted.

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