Every so often I’ll head over to newyorker.com and check out the fiction stories they have posted. Most of the time it’s a drab plotless emotional literary blip by TC Boyle or Alice Monroe, but this particular time it was a compelling piece by Jonathan Lethem – Lostronaut.
It was the journal of an astronaut on a dying space station, stranded by Chinese mines, writing to her lost lover down in Manhattan. She writes about the travails of the decaying equipment the increasingly stuffy atmosphere in a sarcastic tone, drenched in irony and black humor, which was a welcome change from the Buck Rogers optimism that usually populates the accounts of outer space. But more than that was the painful nostalgia for New York itself: the eateries and the aesthetics of the streets in autumn, the Chinese garden at the Met.
That story now serves as a sort of intercalary appendix for Chronic City, Lethem’s latest. We follow the astronaut’s lost lover – Chase Insteadman – down in Manhattan. Chase is a child actor now grown, coasting on residuals. He doesn’t really do much, and there isn’t much urgency to the plot. He mostly hangs around the Upper East Side and smokes pot with other jobless characters – Perkus Tooth – an old rock critic with paranoid obsessions, Oona Laszlo – a ghostwriter and love interest, and Richard Abneg – the mayor’s hardass “fixer” .
Right off the bat, something doesn’t feel quite right about the city. For one, there’s no mention of 9/11 – only a “gray fog” in lower Manhattan, and talks of building a memorial. There’s a lot of talk about “Gnuppets” (rather than Muppets). There’s also Jules Arnheim, a billionaire business executive turned Mayor. So immediately, it feels like we’re in some sort of alternative universe.
The theme is really hammered home in the musings of Perkus. Perkus is the kind of guy who’s seen every film by an obscure director, and will put up thesis-level arguments up about why the single mainstream film the guy did is actually the worst of the canon. Perkus also smokes gratuitous amounts of weed, specifically blends labeled ICE and Chronic. This leads to all sorts of obsessive paranoia, including theories that all the characters are living in a giant snowglobe, and nothing exists outsides the boundaries of the Hudson and East Rivers.
He also gets into bidding wars on ebay over elusive vases called Chaldrons that may or may not even exists.
So about halfway through Chronic City I was getting frustrated, partly because the book seemed to lack any sort of momentum, but also because the New York being portrayed felt so different from what I’d experienced. Sure, Lethem could get the description of an UES apartment lobby just right, from the pattern of the marble floors to the font styling on the brass mailboxes. But there was none of the energy of Manhattan, none of the high-fashion, avant-garde movement of 5th avenue, the punk rock DIY shows of the Lower East Side, or the cutthroat amoral tactics of Midtown or Wall Street businessmen. It was just these cloistered potheads in middle class (for Manhattan) apartments, debating films and art.
But then I started thinking about the title of the book – Chronic City. Chronic, being a long-term disease, and also a street-name for really intense marijuana, the kind Perkus smokes. This was pot that induced so much paranoia and jittery stasis that the partakers go crazy on their own internal monologue. And I remembered, there are quite a few of those types in Manhattan – the rent-stabilized shut-ins, the lifers, the homeless. And if the city itself gets painted with that brush, a new picture starts to emerge.
Reading Chronic City is sort of a puzzle itself, an illusion. On the surface is this rather mundane account of Chase and his pedestrian emotions, and his fawning obsession with Perkus (and Perkus’s ideas). But the true theme of the book comes through at the meta-level, both when the characters break the 4th wall, and the mere fact that Lethem sets the story in a alternative universe Manhattan, populated with oddly-named characters.
New York is an illusion that’s continually re-imagined by its collective denizens. There’s no single story, or even a narrative arc to the city itself. New York is like the Chaldron hologram, able to contain infinite possibilities and therefore no single story is out of place.
If there is a regret about the book and about Lethem (who fits the bill perfectly for what Bruce Sterling once labeled “slipstream” fiction), is that he doesn’t pursue the genre conventions he deploys so readily. Chronic City makes references to a subway-destroying “Tiger”, a virtual world brimming with loot (ala Second Life) and of course the account of the Lostronout. But he merely points them out, like a literary tour guide to the Museum of Genre Tropes. As symbols, they’re pretty powerful, but those who read genre do so because we want characters to “live” in those tropes, not merely observe.
Chronic City has some very interesting things to say about the “nature” of reality, the depersonalizing power of New York, even the meta-versatility of the literary novel, all written in Lethem’s pristine prose.
But for those who seek out adventure, both in New York City and in novels, the potheads of Chronic City are poor company.