Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Monday, April 2, 2012

Review of Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem

No, really! What if it's all just a, you know, simulation, or whatever? Like The Matrix, right? So we're all just brains in a jar. I mean, how would you know?

Chronic City is aptly named, no coincidence, I'm sure. The characters spend almost their entire narrative life stoned out of their minds in an alternate reality Manhattan full of mysteries and strange phenomenon. Escaped tigers roam the streets, destroying buildings and (possibly) enacting the agenda of the powerful rich Mayor (modeled on Bloomberg), conspiracies seem to crop up at every turn, and the very fabric of reality is called into question. Just like you used to do in your dorm room between epic bong rips.

Chase Insteadman, a bland actor, almost aggressive in his deference, wanders through this buddy-movie of a book, learning a sort of pop-culture midrash from his new friend Perkus Tooth, and trying to find consolation as his fiancee, Janice Trumbull, languishes in orbit, trapped aboard a malfunctioning space station. The story of the lovers separated by an unbridgeable distance has captured the nation, distracting them from wars about which they no longer wish to read.

The love letters between Janice and Chase (all one way, since Chase isn't allowed to write back) provide the emotional center to this otherwise fuzzy, and fuzzy-headed, book. Lethem has an amazing way with a sentence, and his missives from the doomed station are poignant and beautiful (Janice calls herself Chase's "lostronaut"). But they aren't enough to give weight to a story that is essentially about the weightlessness of the artificially created worlds with which we pull the wool over our own eyes.

Ultimately, the shaggy dog story winds up connecting the dots and revealing the story beneath the surface, but there's such a lethargic movement to it that it's difficult to care. The stakes are too low.

The island of Manhattan, almost a character in itself, is well drawn and it's obvious that Lethem is working from a very detailed internal map, both of places and of ideas. Just what we're meant to gain from all the pop-culture and worlds within worlds is another thing entirely. Even though parts of it read with the obsessiveness and wackiness of Pynchon, there's very little of Pynchon's urgency in this book, nor is there the languid discursiveness of summer, urgent in it's desire to negate urgency. No, this book seems locked in stasis, a winter book, a letter from the coldest part of the year, where it seems impossible to believe that the ice and snow and darkness will ever end. That makes for a very particular kind of read. It's all good enough, and in places it's great, but it's so downbeat that it's hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm. It simulates, almost too well, the sensation of being just too stoned to care.

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