There was a time, in the ‘90s, when it seemed as though Jonathan Lethem was poised to become a writer of the 21st century. From 1994’s Gun, With Occasional Music to 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn, Lethem did things with literature that few others had attempted before: infusing his books with blended and spliced genres that had a raw, almost punk-like vitality to them. Not all of the books were perfect – As She Climbed Across the Table, I’m looking at you – but all of them were mind-bending blowouts that, even in their weaknesses, invited reappraisals and re-reads. (Even As She Climbed … merited a re-examination from this reviewer, simply to understand and appreciate some of the book’s shortcomings.)
Of course, Motherless Brooklyn, about a would-be detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, was the book that catapulted Lethem into the literary mainstream, saving him from the science-fiction ghetto that he had been mostly pigeonholed into. That book, perhaps along with 1998’s Girl in Landscape represents a high-water mark for Lethem, and the beginning of a shift away from invented dystopian panoramas into novels that are more set in present-day realities. In shrugging off his roots in the 2000s, though, it seems that the 21st century has wound up not being all that kind to Lethem.
The Fortress of Solitude, a long-winded coming of age epic that melded rock criticism and race relations, sort of stumbled in its last half due to a somewhat unnecessary superhero motif, and a plot point involving a mother who had disappeared that wasn’t met head-on, but was merely was pushed to the sidelines. (It was as though Lethem couldn’t get over his real-life mother’s death from cancer in his early teens, and couldn’t encapsulate the loss into words.)
Then there was the follow-up, a collection of short stories called Men and Cartoons, which was widely uneven and was at its best when Lethem dipped back to the well of the same ‘90s work that he was seeming to remove himself from. And then there was You Don’t Love Me Yet, probably his worst book, a novel about a rock band that was simply silly and trite. It ultimately was an unmemorable exercise in which Lethem seemed to be transitioning into something else, which led me to forgive him for writing it even though I have yet to be bothered to go back and read it a second time to better capture why, it seemed, like such a letdown. Only the aptly-named The Disappointment Artist, a short collection of semi-autobiographical essays, seemed to hit the sweet spot, as though Lethem was becoming a better essayist than a writer of inventive fiction.
Now he has unleashed his eighth novel, Chronic City, a book that Lethem himself has described as being “long” and “strange” – and presumably a tome that he wrote as his would-be dissertation for receiving the $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, which is described as the “genius awards”, that he won in 2005. It is a meandering and fairly plotless book, one that is bewildering as it is baffling, which makes it hard to say what exactly it is about. But it basically involves the adventures of Chase Insteadman, a former child star living in Manhattan, and a rag-tag group of followers with names like Perkus Tooth, Oona Laszlo, and Richard Abneg – which all seem like they’ve been ripped from the “how to name your characters guide” written by Dr. Seuss.
Whereas The Fortress of Solitude and You Don’t Love Me Yet showcased Lethem exploring the world of rock music, Chronic City sees Lethem turn his attention to the world of film and television. The book starts out promisingly, where Chase meets Perkus in the Criterion Collection offices – you know, the company that releases old and avant-garde films onto DVD. The two wind up talking about films by real and imagined directors that don’t actually exist in our flesh-and-blood reality.
This segment kind of reminded me of my tendency, as a child, to make up horror films to impress my peers that I was a true film connoisseur, or that I, at least, could “prove” to them that I could stomach slasher fare like the original Friday the 13th, which I hadn’t seen and they had. It seems that Lethem had something to say about authenticity in film, a quest to find the most obscure works of art, in order to attain some secret knowledge in the window of reality by hunting down these films.
However, from there, the novel goes a bit off the rails as the characters basically turn into socialites, attending all sorts of events ranging from dinner parties to funerals to nights at the theatre to charity auctions. (This sort of indulgence Lethem had previous kept to his short stories.) And from there, the plot really loses the plot as the characters even turn to hunting down an elusive chaldron – which Lethem describes as a type of vase – after Perkus had a sort of transcendent experience looking at a picture of one while being treated by an acupuncturist. (All I could find by looking up the word ‘chaldron’ on Google was a bunch of definitions in French, the closest English term describing it as “entrails” or a “English measure of volume”. There’s Lethem being inventive again, I guess.)
The characters take to bidding on one of these chaldrons on eBay, which leads to a long, pointless sequence that is utterly boring and detrimental to the pace of Chronic City, which is so named as Perkus is a noted marijuana enthusiast. If the chaldron sequence is any indication, one might best enjoy this novel while smoking pot.
There are a variety of subplots that interject themselves into the text, as well, to pad out the novel to nearly 500 pages. One involving a chocolate-like smell that invades the reaches of the city really goes nowhere. There is also a tiger that is on the loose, threatening the city’s inhabitants, and making one wonder, at least until the sinister “reveal” at the end of the book, why Lethem didn’t bother to call in the animal control officers to reel it in. There is also a plot element involving Chase’s fiancée, Janice Trumbull, being trapped on the International Space Station, surrounded by Chinese mines, suffering from a form of cancer on her foot.
Like the cancerous tumor suffered by Janice, this subplot is essentially one of the novel’s weak points, a stand-in for the mother figure that Lethem lost to cancer, a subject that Lethem has never really dealt with fully in any of his works. What’s worse, however, is that when Lethem interjects the story with missives sent by Janice to Chase via mission control, his voice is too readily apparent. Janice speaks in the same parenthetical notes as Lethem uses elsewhere, and it is really still evident that Lethem’s weakness – his inability to write a truly believable female character, perhaps outside of Pella Marsh from Girl In Landscape – is still his Achilles’ heel.
One might be tempted to think from the above paragraphs that Chronic City is a terrible book. It does have its moments, though. As usual, Lethem peppers his dialogue with a few angular zingers, and when the characters are riffing on foreign (to reality) films, the novel is a delight. However, it is perhaps way too long, and eventually settles into examining what is real and what is virtual in the character’s lives, and one has to wonder why Lethem settled into a trope that feels as old as The Matrix.
Chronic City is a sometimes interesting read that is at least marginally better than his previous work, You Don’t Love Me Yet. However, one has to wonder if Lethem has settled into a pattern, by keeping his work rooted in the (mostly) real and present day, one that belies the promise of his best writing, which, alas, was 10 to 15 years ago. Lethem might have once been a writer for the 21st century, but his greatest achievements are still, unfortunately, rooted in the 20th.