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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Well-Begun and All Done: Chronic City

The book: Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

First line: I first met Perkus Tooth in an office.

Last Line: I only hope it doesn't get any smaller.

There may be writers alive who "do" New York better than Jonathan Lethem, but we can't think of any off the top of our head. His Fortress of Solitude evokes 1970's Brooklyn with an eye and ear for detail that brought tears to the eyes of this transplanted New Yorker. Chronic City presents Lethem's take on Manhattan.

Well, sort of.

In this novel, we have a sort of alternate-universe Manhattan: one that is very much like the one you might see if you took a trip to the Big Apple, but. . . yet. . . not quite. In this Manhattan, the New York Times publishes a special "war free" edition. In this reality, the tragedy that struck lower Manhattan was a mysterious "grey fog" that continues to shroud the bottom of the island. Here, it snows in August, and an entire luxury apartment building has been bequeathed to the city's stray-dog population. In this universe, Muppets don't exist, but "The Gnuppet Show" is immensely popular. And in this New York, something that may or may not be a gigantic escaped tiger wreaks havoc on the East Side, destroying bodegas, disrupting subway service, and thwarting any attempts at its apprehension or destruction.

And let's face it, if you're reading a novel whose main characters have names like Chase Insteadman, Oona Laszlo, Richard Abneg, Georgina ("The Hawman") Hawkmanaji, and the aforementioned Perkus Tooth, you know you're not exactly dealing with the world as it is.

The novel centers around Chase Insteadman, a former child-star, now grown up and liiving off of residuals in New York City. He meets Perkus Tooth, a sort of rock-critic-who-isn't, a reclusive marijuana connoisseur who lives in a cluttered East Side apartment and fulminates on film-theory and the nature of reality itself. Reality, indeed, is a major theme of this novel: What is real? The tiger? Chase's imperiled fiancee Janice Trumbull, a cancer-stricken astronaut trapped in a space-station that has been blockaded by Chinese mines? "Chaldrons," an obsession of Perkus'--unattainable objets d'art that may or may not exist in reality and/or in a "Second Life"-type online game called "Yet Another World"? Through Perkus and those around him, Chase comes to understand the nature of his own reality--that which may be "getting smaller" at the novel's end.

Jonathan Lethem is a magnificent writer. If you've never read him, you should start with Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, whose main character is a Tourett's Syndrome-suffering detective. Then quickly make your way over to Chronic City.

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