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Book reviewing is big business—at least, it used to be. Publishers clamored to get their authors reviewed in big name papers (New York Times, anyone? Chicago Tribune?). Authors crowed over a spot in the now defunct Kirkus. Yet new book review blogs pop up every day, and several niche review sites, such as Bookslut and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, have a large core of dedicated readers.

Book reviews have been around as long as, well, books. Back when Ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians were first scratching out letters, people talked about what they’d read recently:

—Did you read Ahmose’s scribing of the Pharoah’s proclamation?
—Ugh, it’s so wordy! Mkhai’s is much better.

Until recent years, reading, and therefore reviewing, was limited to the upper and religious classes. Amongst these folk, books were the order of the day, dissected and discussed in minute detail. By the time the literary salons of the 17th century rolled around, book reviews had grown much more formal. Authors, critics, patrons, and other literary figures debated context, allegory, intent, and more, forming the basis of modern literary criticism. Some even published pamphlets, arguably the earliest printed form of book reviews. Others wrote responses in magazines. Not all of it was pretty.

I just finished Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem, and I’d like to offer an alternative to PopMatters’ so-so review of it published not long after the book first came out. Writer Zachary Houle calls Chronic City “meandering and fairly plotless”, a narrative “bewildering as it is baffling”.

What some see as ‘meandering’ I see as representing the Situationist concept of derive (French, literally meaning ‘drift’), which Guy Debord defines as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences”. It’s a conscious mode of attention attuned to both aesthetic and cultural detail, and it’s especially useful according to Debord in exploring urban environments of which New York, the setting of Chronic City, is obviously a quintessential example.

What’s more, Chronic City assuredly isn’t plotless—it has a clear beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s rising action, a dénouement, and a conclusion. Nor is it particularly bewildering or even baffling, at least not to me. The death of one character and the revelations regarding several others are in essence cathartic moments straight out of Aristotle’s Poetics, all the more so for their subjects being of high station (literally in the case of one ensconced in a space capsule above the planet’s surface).

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