June 21, 2011

New York City Conspiracy Theories

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
reviewed by Courtney

Like his previous work, Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City is in large part a love letter to New York City. In this latest novel, however, Lethem has abandoned the Brooklyn of Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn to focus on upper Manhattan. As the narrative follows Chase Insteadman, a retired child actor and his peculiar group of friends through their daily lives, Lethem seamlessly incorporates elements of magical realism into the New York setting, creating a vision of an alternate city that is compelling and uncomfortably familiar.

Chronic City is mostly narrated in the first person by Chase, the former child star of a popular sitcom, now most famous for his social life and ongoing engagement to Janice Trumbull, a beautiful astronaut tragically stranded in space. The grandiosity of his romance, catalogued exhaustively by the press, is at odds with his largely uneventful day-to-day life, and as Chase details his growing friendship with Perkus Tooth, an eccentric cultural critic, his former priorities begin to fade into the background.

The narrative is entirely character driven, and much of the first part of the novel details the rambling, obsessive, and occasionally paranoid monologues that Perkus delivers on popular culture and politics as the two characters consume copious amounts of caffeine, hamburgers, and marijuana. As Chase encounters the bizarre array of characters that make up Perkus' social circle, Perkus' obsessions become his own, their theories supported by an inexplicable series of seemingly unrelated events. An escaped tiger is terrorizing the upper east side, nesting eagles have driven friend and city official Richard Abneg from his apartment, lower Manhattan is entirely engulfed in a heavy grey fog, there is a great deal of confusion as to whether Marlon Brando is alive or dead, everyone is inexplicably obsessed with a mysterious and beautiful type of pottery called chaldrons, and Chase has no memory of his fiancé outside of tragic letters he receives from space.

Lethem's New York is convincingly constructed, and as the reader is drawn in to the narrative, it is hard not to be as seduced by conspiracy theories as the characters themselves. Lethem has captured that elusive feeling of being perched on the verge of a momentous discovery only to watch it slip away, revealed as not only insignificant, but actually nonexistent. It is easy to get swept up in Lethem's world, and the hyper-realism of Chase's daily experiences and encounters acts to accentuate the elements of surrealism in the text. Through the eyes of Perkus even these inexplicable events are rooted in the familiar mechanisms of modernity and corruption, and it is tempting to draw similar connections between Lethem's world and our own.

Like Motherless Brooklyn, Chronic City's narrative suggests a plot revelation more significant that it contains, but this let down mirrors the trajectory of the countless conspiracy theories the characters pursue through the text, and ultimately the experience of the search for a unifying answer is shown to be far more significant than any larger truth that may or may not exist. Lethem is a talented and uniquely obsessive writer, and his prose is both beautiful and witty. Though Chronic City is quite long (480 pages), it is a surprisingly fast, and extremely fun read.

Posted by at June 21, 2011 02:18 PM
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