by Jonathan Lethem
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Chronic City continues Jonathan Lethem's move away from straight science fiction towards more mainstream novels, although, as with his previous outing, You Don't Love Me Yet, this novel about a grown-up child star living in Manhattan requires the same type of suspension of disbelief which is required of so many science fiction and fantasy novels. In fact, the strongly realistic setting of New York occasionally jars that suspension of disbelief when it comes into contact with some of the more surreal aspects of Chronic City.
Lethem begins the novel with the chance meeting between former child star Chase Insteadman and eccentric former music critic Perkus Tooth at the offices of the Criterion Collection. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, based, it would seem, on Tooth's strange charisma and the fact that Chase, living entirely off residuals from a television show he appeared in as a child, lives a mostly aimless existence, moving from one social event to the next, trying to find something, anything, to fill his days. Their relationship brings Chase into contact with several other individuals, many of them almost as eccentric as Perkus. Oona Laszlo, the ghostwriter who becomes Chase's lover, despite his highly publicized relationship with Janice Trumball, an astronaut stranded in orbit on the space station, and Richard Abneg, a troubleshooter for New York mayor Arnheim, both become major parts of Chase's life in part because of his friendship with Perkus.
Chase and his compatriots move through a New York which is similar to the New York of our own world, although this New York has been under attack for several weeks by a rogue tiger menacing the East Side. Although nobody has seen the tiger, and it behaves in amazingly un-tigerlike fashion, its existence is taken for granted by the citizens of New York, who use the internet to track the passage of the mythical beast. Chase's New York also is home to the Urban Fjord, a massive public art project undertaken by Laird Noteless, whose book Oona is ghost-writing, and a strange fog which has descended on lower Manhattan and refuses to dissipate.
In many ways, Chronic City is an existential novel. Chase, Perkus, and their assorted hangers-on simply exist in this New York, accepting whatever life throws at them. For the reader, it isn't quite so easy. Lethem clearly does not intend for everything to be taken at face value by the reader and as the novel progresses, the basics which the reader has taken for granted about the various characters and their relationships are shown to be gossamer. Throughout the novel, Lethem does drop hints that this is the case, although they only become clear in retrospect.
The novel depicts itself as a mainstream, non-genre novel and in many ways it is. Lethem focuses his attention on the relationships, as understood by Chase Insteadman, with most of the strangeness in the background, except when it encroaches on Perkus and Chase's somewhat insular lives. Taken individually, each of their lives are somewhat banal, but as Lethem pieces them together, with their idiosyncrasies, he creates a world which is both mundane and exceptional, superimposed on a depiction of Manhattan as realistic as his vision of Brooklyn in Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude while at the same time as fantastic as his more science fictional works.
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