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 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...
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