by Jonathan Lethem
467 pages, Faber&Faber
Review by Marc Nash
Lethem is the best fiction author writing today. Fact. (usual IMhO disclaimers). This isn't even one of his best, yet still knocks the socks off all his would-be pretenders. Every sentence is hand-crafted out of the marble of language with a literary chisel. Every word has a tiny detonation when placed next to the trip switch and timer of the other words in its sentence. You don't believe me, try "his hide-and-seek muse" or "his bare-knuckly shoulders". But having said all that, there was something slightly unsatisfying about this, his latest Meisterwerk. In the same way that Quentin Tarantino really needs now to shoot a film without a gun or a sword in it, Lethem maybe needs to widen his canvas beyond that of New York City. It stands for many things, but is perhaps too idiosyncratic to beat the full weight of an investigation into hyper-realities for the whole world.
Perkus Tooth, ex-music journalist and counter-cultural critic and activist, suffers from cluster migraines for days on end, whereby the whole of the world of his vision is shrunk to a tiny point of light in front of his eyes. When he is fully functioning, he seeks an actual crystal clear singularity of understanding that will unlock the secrets of the world, or society at least. With his cultural clues, cues and symbols, he tries to weave together the tapestry of ellipses like any good conspiracy theorist. Into his life comes Chase Insteadman, whilom child actor cum mid-to high level socialite, still living off the residuals and lingering recognition and not doing very much with his life at all. His girlfriend is stuck in a space station orbiting the earth, blocked off by a lethal Chinese space minefield. Her heart-rending messages back to him are consumed and digested by the whole of Manhattan, though Chase is for some reason unable to ever write back.
The book moves through these two pair of eye, harpooning New York socialites, politicians, artists, as each's foundation myths are laid bare for the illusions they are. There is a searing dissection of a dinner party very early on in the book, where each guest has their assigned status and function and cannot break out of it. It is brilliantly rendered. As well as the great doomed romance in space being played out in the media, there is a giant 'tiger' on the rampage through the city, pulling down buildings and inadvertently redeveloping NYC's cityscape. The actuality behind the nature of this mythical tiger is hilarious, but I won't spoil it. An artist makes huge chasms in the city and landscapes them for his pieces, thus art mimics and mocks reality. A ghost writer is following the artist around to pen his biography and it is her Chase is having an affair with, though she herself seems a ghostly presence anywhere outside of his bed.
And so it goes on, twisting and boring through New York' fabulations. The City itself seems gripped by a never-ending snowy winter. Perkus' apartment gets destroyed by the tiger. His redoubt and conspiracy Central HQ gone, his whole life changes. The hobo who he helped out now comes to his aid and gets him a berth in a centre for abandoned dogs. The canine with whom he has to share the doggy apartment is a three-legged pitbull bitch with nothing but unconditional love for him. Such purity of feeling and simplicity of needs changes Perkus' worldview around and he eschews everything of his former life to commune with this simple beast. If she doesn't evidence awareness of something, Perkus concludes we humans don't need to concern ourselves with it either. After all, dogs have their own rich weave of associations when they sniff a tree or a urine-stained hydrant. Chase too comes to learn the true nature of his space-trapped girlfriend's situation which reflects back on his own as a middling actor. So both men get stripped of their own founding myths and illusions, for they are too low on the social scale to be able to construct their own for themselves. For that you need money, power and high birth. In other words, to be a players' player.
Why is Lethem a genius writer? Because he gets right inside the complexity of the human psyche better than most: "I was full of intent. (This might be seen as the mediocre actor's basic minimum threshold: to play two moods simultaneously, one on the top surface, the other below and invest adequately in both)". Because he can lance symbols and social constructions with laser precision: "I tried to fit Perkus for Maud and Thatcher's compilation album, Great Shrunken Heads Of Manhattan", when Chase is trying to weigh up how Perkus would fit in to a very chi-chi dinner party who were asking him about his man-of-mystery friend. While the book is a drive for both Perkus and Chase to discover true authentic feelings in themselves and to cut through all the bogus, media-planted delusions they hold, some of the parings and off-cuts are a bit disappointing in their mundanity. We are presented with virtual reality and an actor living out a role unknowingly like The Truman Show. These both seem very tame to me by way of explanation of where does reality meet reality show meet hyper-reality?
Ultimately Manhattan is the star of Chronic City. "People, like dogs, make demimondes for the purpose of sensory sanity. Nobody - that's no body - really believes in the news from beyond the boundary of their neighborhood or pocket universe. Manhattan is one of those, you know, a pocket universe." My problem is as accurate as I believe this portrait of NYC to be, I feel excluded from it because I am not A New Yorker and feel I can't quite rely on its wisdom and myths to take for my own.