Chronic City

by Jonathan Lethem

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Chronic City

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Chronic City is at once satire and science fiction, a novel about contemporary New York City that uncovers the city’s glamour, its fantasy qualities, and its essential emptiness. The protagonist of the novel, Chase Insteadman, is a former child star who lives on the residuals from his role years before in the popular Martyr & Pesky television series. He now has no real job, except perhaps as a guest at fashionable dinner parties.

Chase is a one-dimensional character (as his last name, “instead-of-a-man,” implies) who skates on the surface of life until he meets Perkus Tooth, a former rock critic who was famous for posting political broadsides around the city. Perkus draws Chase into his bizarre world of esoteric compact discs and digital videodiscs, while he deconstructs the conspiracies he senses lurking behind contemporary life. (For example, Marlon Brando, according to Perkus, is still alive, and the font of The New Yorker magazine controls its readers). Perkus smokes a lot of dope with Chase and also suffers from cluster headaches.

The two friends inhabit a very small patch of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, rarely venturing beyond their apartments or the Jackson Hole restaurant where they consume the giant cheeseburgers that form the staple of Perkus’s diet. Chase soon persuades Perkus to visit Strabo Blandiana, a New Age guru and acupuncturist, to treat his headaches. In the treatment rooms, Perkus has his first glimpse of a chaldron, a beautiful vase giving off a mystical aura that leads Perkus and then his friends Chase and Richard Abneg (with whom he attended Horace Mann High School) to try to purchase one on eBay. All of them are caught up in the mystique of the chaldrons, but for Perkus the vases are also one of the keys to understanding reality.

Chase is supposedly engaged to Janice Trumbull, an astronaut with whom he shared a brief adolescent romance while growing up in Bloomington, Indiana. Janice is now trapped on the space station Northern Lights, stuck in a zone of Chinese mines. Janice’s letters to Chase are published in the city newspapers, making Chase the object of public sympathy, but Chase has almost forgotten Janice. He falls in love with Oona Laszlo, who used to help Perkus with his broadsides and is now a ghostwriter working on the autobiography of Laird Noteless.

Noteless is a sculptor who builds giant installations as chasms in the city. Oona and Chase visit one such construction pit, called Fjord, a giant hole in the ground above Harlem, to conduct research for Oona’s book. Meanwhile, other craters have appeared in Manhattan because a giant tiger is terrifying the city. Richard, an aide to the mayor of New York, explains that the “tiger” is really a tunneling machine brought in to finish a subway line that has gone berserk and wanders the city at night destroying buildings. In the long scene that brings this early exposition to a close, a large dinner party at the mayor’s residence, Perkus discovers a chaldron in a niche in a wall and then disappears.

In the second half of the novel, the many mysteries raised in the first half are only partially solved. Perkus’s apartment is been condemned after the “tiger” destroys the nearby Jackson Hole, and he is saved by his homeless friend Biller, who secretly installs him in the Friendreth Canine Apartments. In this dwelling-house devoted solely to dogs, Perkus shares an apartment with a three-legged pit bull named Ava, who is recovering from the loss of her leg after a policeman shot it in a drug raid.

Ava and Perkus appear...

(This entire section contains 1768 words.)

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to have rescued each other, but the old Perkus soon reemerges, riffing on his conspiracy theories about contemporary culture. When Chase finally tracks him down, Perkus begins to spin out the epiphanies he has gained from the chaldrons: He claims that all New Yorkers are living in a theme park and that the multiple urban disasters (such as the building-eating tiger, a gray fog that covers the city, a pervasive chocolate smell, and massive blizzards) are parts of a virtual reality that is being controlled by outside powers. They are all, in effect, players in a computer game being run by someone else. Perkus is also physically sick, however, and when Chase and Richard finally rush him to a hospital, it is too late. He dies of internal bleeding.

In the conclusion of the novel, Chase uncovers the truth of Perkus’s rants, that he actually is an actor in a script someone else has written. Among other revelations, he discovers that Oona has been ghost-writing the letters to Chase printed in the newspapers because Janice probably died months ago in an explosion of the space station. The drama is being played out for publicity, to build public morale at a time of multiple disasters in the city. Further, Chase is living not only on residuals but also on checks from something called the Manhattan Reification Society, which is clandestinely paying him to play the empty roles he inhabits, such as Janice Trumbull’s lonely fiancée and the charming dinner party guest.

Thus, the novel’s characters are players in a kind of virtual reality, as Perkus realized. Their world is a computer game like the popular Web site Yet Another World, but one that they take to be real. Even the chaldrons, it turns out, are not real but holograms created by multiple laser lights. Chase dismisses Oonawho is really the Janice of her letters, as Janice and the chaldrons are Chase’s illusionsand takes in Ava. He begins a relationship with another writer named Anne Sprillthrall and joins a combat unit in a Yet Another World video game. Chase in the end appears to have accepted his own identity and the city’s realityor unreality. He acknowledges the illusion and even joins it. “The world was ersatz and actual, forged and fake, by ourselves and unseen others.”

Chronic City is at once surrealistic and satirical, but the different parts do not always blend together easily. Jonathan Lethem’s first novels were science fiction, and elements of that genre permeate this work, from Janice’s space station letters to the ravaging tunnel machine beneath the city’s streets. There are other pits in the city, howevernotably the public sculptures Laird Noteless builds, like his Fjord, but also the mayor (whom Chase calls “a black hole”), Jackson Hole (which becomes one), the empty chaldrons, and even Chase, who says, “I’m truly a vacuum filled by the folks I’m with.” The parallels point to the satire Lethem is creating in the novel.

Everything in the city is layered, for beneath the shallow surface of this urban scene another world exists. Perkus Tooth gets Chase to question reality and to see that they are all living in a giant computer simulation. Even the tiger, it turns out, is a city operation, creating distractions to keep the public’s attention from the real disasters in New York. (The popular Tiger Watch Web site allows concerned residents to follow the nocturnal wanderings of the rogue tunnel machine.)

Perkus gains some of his insights after his encounters with the chaldron, which is recognizable for “its sublime and superb thingliness,” and these objects point to another satirical angle. The Manhattan Reification Societywhich not only pays Chase’s checks but also supports the canine apartments where Perkus ends up living for free with Avapoints to a Marxist analysis of contemporary life. In the superficial world Chase inhabits, everything and everyone has been turned into an objectthey have been “reified” by contemporary life in “this world of commodities and cartoons”and permanent and lasting human values have been lost. The characters, in other words, are not only shallow actors in some scripted reality television show, but they are also objects to be purchased and used. (At one elegant dinner party, Chase is auctioned off as a premium in a charity fundraiser; Perkus, Richard, and Chase try to buy a chaldron by outbidding others in an online auction.)

The only objects in the novel that rise above this reification, strangely, are animals. Chase watches a flock of birds circle a church spire throughout the novel, and at its end he makes an accidental pilgrimage and finds both church and flock. Richard Abneg is involved in a dispute with his apartment managers over his treatment of an eagles’ nest. Perkus and Oona work late on a new broadside centering on a photo of a polar bear on an ice floe meant to symbolize isolation. Finally, Ava, the three-legged pit bull, comes into the lives of Perkus and Chase and helps rescue both of them from themselves. (The coincidences in the novel point to a lame and unimaginative virtual reality, however: Ava has lost her leg, paralleling Janice’s loss of a foot that is amputated when she develops a tumor in space.) People in Chronic City inhabit a superficial world filled with television reruns and gossippossibly scripted by othersbut animals at least act out their natural roles.

Lethem has always been a writer able to carry the sounds of New York: Both Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and The Fortress of Solitude (2003), his best novels, are filled with vivid descriptions of the city and characters with distinct voices, and Chronic City follows their lead. For example, Chase comments on his city, saying 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.

Lethem’s Perkus has a voice as distinct as any in contemporary fiction. In the last part of the novel, it is even punctuated on the page by the hiccups that foreshadow his imminent death. Lethem is one of the best writers in capturing New York, a mimic of social mores and manners in a line of writers that stretches from William Dean Howells (A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1889) at the end of the nineteenth century through Stephen Millhauser (Martin Dressler, 1996) and Tom Wolfe (The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987) at the end of the twentieth.Chronic City has moments of insight and humor, but it does not hold together at the end as one novel, nor, finally, does it compete with its predecessors.


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Booklist 105, no. 22 (August 1, 2009): 7.

The Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 2009, p. 25.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 12 (June 15, 2009): 624.

Library Journal 134, no. 13 (August 1, 2009): 69.

Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2009, p. E.9.

The New Republic 240, no. 19 (October 21, 2009): 48-53.

New York 42, no. 28 (August 31, 2009): 64-65.

The New York Times, October 13, 2009, p C1.

The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 2009, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 31 (August 3, 2009): 27.

The Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2009, p. 13.