Re: Reading Chronic City

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).

In fact, Chronic City is a masterpiece of social realism, all while at the same time acknowledging fiction’s formal conceits. It ranges over the terrain of Manhattan — a place Spaulding Gray once characterized as being not part of America but instead a small island off the coast of it — in the now seemingly weightless time after the dust and other airborne contaminants have settled down and things supposedly returned to ‘normal’ as the trauma of 11 September fades from collective memory.

Chronic City aims to explore what Debord terms the ‘psychogeographical’ elements of the contemporary New York lifeworld, a place that is as surreal as they come. Indeed, the question of authenticity (in other words reality, sur- and otherwise) looms large in the book. The various whack-jobs comprising the narrative action are all in some sense engaged in keeping it real, which in New York is open to a wide variety of interpretations. Lethem himself toys with authorial authenticity, in particular textuality and the subversion of its techniques of erasure.

At the center of the story is money, that nefarious invention of mankind that turns all things, from pushpins to poetry as Jeremy Bentham infamously says, into utilities of exchange to put be on the market and sold to the highest bidder. And money drives most everything in Manhattan, for now at least still the capital of the global capitalist system. Most of the characters in Chronic City are beneficiaries of the concentration of global capital flows into the Big Apple and surf the waves of that largesse, bobbing like champagne corks on an ocean of bubbly self-reflexive privilege. Even Perkus Tooth, the refusenik social critic who eschews bourgeois success and functions as an anti-Jay Gatsby to Chronic City narrator’s Chase Insteadman’s Nick Carraway, turns out to be a trustafarian cashing checks derived from profits off the family business back home.

The chaldron — one of the ostensibly baffling things in Chronic City — is emblematic of the insatiable desire that arises in individuals in capital accumulation’s wake. (One of the attributes of monetary wealth is that is has no upper limit, and one of its dilemmas, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many others before and since have observed, is how to justify the persistent amassing of additional piles of it once you have far more than you could ever possibly need.) The chaldron, ultimately revealed to be a holographic image of a classical-style vessel, is a literal and metaphoric container for the obscure object of desire as Luis Bunuel puts it, the Pandora’s box opened in this case by filthy lucre that gives birth to the accursed share of Georges Bataille, that which must be cleansed through destruction in ritual acts of conspicuous consumption.

In New York City there are any number ways to engage in gratuitous waste. They range from investment bankers and other swells spending $1200 without a second thought for ‘bottle service’ at the neighborhood bar, to hedge fund managers burning up to eight figures at auction to acquire such more truly baffling objects as a great white shark encased in formaldehyde sent to market under the category ‘work of art’.

Perhaps what makes Chronic City seem inscrutable is that it’s about a very, very small piece of the world, the uppermost sliver of the upper crust that fiddles away while the present-day Rome that is New York City goes up in smoke along with the rest of Western civilization. In this regard, I offer up something Joyce Carol Oates writes in a recent Smithsonian article:

Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place. It’s impossible to think of Charles Dickens and not to think of Dickens’ London; impossible to think of James Joyce and not to think of Joyce’s Dublin; and so with Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor — each is inextricably linked to a region, as to a language-dialect of particular sharpness, vividness, idiosyncrasy.

We’re all regionalists in the final analysis, Oates goes on to say. In Chronic City, Lethem, the Bard of Boerum Hill, turns his attention from the simple B & T (bridge-and-tunnel) folk of his native borough, limned in Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, to cast an unflinching eye on his more cosmopolitan (read: peculiar) neighbors on the other side of the East River. The result is a postmodern Vanity Fair.

RATING 8 / 10