Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The real and the surreal clash in Lethem's Manhattan

Chronic City
by Jonathan Lethem

If Seinfeld was "the show about nothing," then Chronic City just may be the novel about nothing. It's beautifully written, but very little happens in the course of it's 480 pages. To keep my comparison alive, you'd find your "Jerry" in protagonist Chase Insteadman--one of the many unusual names we'll discuss in a moment. The book's jacket copy describes him like this:

"Chase Insteadman, a handsome, inoffensive fixture on Manhattan's social scene, lives off residuals earned as a child star on a much-beloved sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancee, 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."

Within the novel's text, Chase describes himself: "My distinction (if there is one) lies in the helpless and immersive extent of my empathy. I'm truly a vacuum filled by the folks I'm with, and vapidly neutral in their absence." In other words, a hard character to really care about.

Chase is surrounded by a group of equally oddly-named friends. Foremost among them is Perkus Tooth, the "Kramer" of the bunch. Perkus is long past quirky and deep into weird territory. He's a largely sequestered social critic who spends his days and nights getting high and sharing semi-coherent rants with a selected few. Perkus's life-long friend, Richard Abneg, a city bureaucrat, can be our "George." And their long-time associate, and Chase's secret lover, Oona Laszlo, rounds out our quartet as "Elaine."

My comparison with this long-dead television show is a little ridiculous, but at the same time, it's not crazy at all. These are caricature New Yorkers, doing their thing. Chase is the least objectionable of the bunch, but none of them are all that likeable. By far, the most sympathetic character is Janice Trumbull, trapped in space and pining for her man. Her letters home were my favorite part of the novel, but they were few and far between.

So, I mentioned the names. To those already listed add Strabo Blandiana, Laird Noteless, Georgina Hawkmanjani, Anne Sprillthmar, and many others. The crazy names certainly weren't randomly selected, and it's no casual mistake when Chase is erroneously addressed as "Chase Unperson," and Perkus is later referred to as "Mr. Pincus Truth." Lethem winks at his readers with this passage:

"His name is Stanley Toothbrush."
"See, now you're definitely making fun of me, because that's idiotic."
"Stanley would be awfully hurt if he heard you. You have no idea how often people laugh in his face."
"Toothbrush... that's just a little hard to swallow."
"No more so than stuff you swallow every day."

The New York setting is as much, if not more, of a character than any of the others. (And the title references not only Manhattan, but a grade of marijuana. Did I mention the characters spend interminable portions of the novel getting high and having only vaguely comprehensible conversations?) Lethem's Manhattan is immediately recognizable; I've eaten at the burger joint the characters frequent. At the same time, it's a sort of bizarro Manhattan where the city and the citizens have to deal with tigers run amok, a pervasive scent of chocolate, and can choose to read the "War-Free Edition" of the Times. Muppets are Gnuppets, and are referenced constantly. What does it all mean?

I don't think anyone but Jonathan Lethem will ever understand what it all means, but by the end I understood what he was getting at. I just didn't care. As terrific as some of the writing is, the novel as a whole is rather tedious, and ultimately unsuccessful. I can't honestly recommend reading it unless, perhaps, you're a pothead with an extraordinary vocabulary.


  1. Wow - Susan's back!!! Look at all these reviews for October! I hope you've completely recovered from your illness.
    I enjoy browsing your book reviews as I find they reflect my own tastes. I have limited reading time and appreciate your recommended titles. (I'll be skipping this one!)
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Oh, hi Christiane, thank you for those kind words! And, yes, I'm not quite back to normal, but I'm getting better each day. Thank you.

    As you can see, I had a backlog of reviews that I just hadn't had the energy to post. I'm so glad you find them helpful. By all means feel free to chime in with your own opinions and recommendations--especially if we're as sympatico as you say. :-)