Monday, January 25, 2010

Cheat! Cheat!*

Thought I would continue in the review vein for a bit. To that end: a book “review” of sorts. I will get to a restaurant soon for all you foodfolk, never fear.

My friend of mysterious run-in fame recently lent me Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. JL and I go back a long way. I tried to read his Fortress of Solitude about five years ago, after tackling the in-some-ways-similarly-themed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, but I couldn’t get into it. Years passed. I moved to Brooklyn. I became kind of sort of a—gasp—partial hipster. I kept running into Lethem’s gentrification polemics on various websites. I kept seeing the always-intriguing cover of Motherless Brooklyn. I picked up a copy for $4 at the lovely Pranga bookstore, and found that it was the first book I’d loved in a really long time. I read it in the laundromat. I finished it as the G train pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, appropriately enough. (If you only ever click on one of my ridiculous links, please let it be this one.) I bought Patchwork Planet, an exclusive between the also-lovely BookCourt and one of my boss companies. I read The Disappointment Artist and Gun, With Occasional Music and You Don’t Love Me Yet (which I don’t love yet, but that’s another story). I read, strangely, large portions of each of them at the laundromat as well. I…failed at writing a review of Chronic City and instead wrote about every other Jonathan Lethem book I’ve read. O-o-okay, let’s try again.

Chronic City is a crazy, sprawling book. It’s a Big Novel of Manhattan. Perhaps to prove that he was thinking big, as well as thinking New York, Lethem went on a book tour around the boroughs, over the course of which he eventually read the entire book. I went to the second of these readings, at BookCourt; strolling in about 10 minutes before the start, I was astonished at the large crowd. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the whole book—I’d seen some ambivalent reviews, and I am loath to start a long novel (there are so many great books out there that I tend to go for quality and quantity when I can)—but I thought I’d give a chapter a try. And what a great chapter it was. Still wasn’t quite enough to make me jump up and buy the book (or begin the slow process of queuing for it in the Brooklyn Public Library’s database), but…my mother asked me at one point if I wanted to read it and I responded that I wasn’t sure, but probably would despite myself. And, hey, look, true story!

To give you some background, Chronic City tells the story of Chase Insteadman, a former child star living in a sort-of-apocalyptic version of Manhattan. Chase is basically a symbolic celebrity; he doesn’t do much of anything these days, but people remember him from the glory days of the sitcom Martyr & Pesty. Chase is also famous for his longstanding relationship with Janice, an astronaut stranded in space, who writes him increasingly surreal letters as the novel progresses. Chronic City charts Chase’s interactions with the city and its inhabitants, particularly one peculiar Perkus Tooth, an ex–Rolling Stone columnist (who bristles to be described that way) and broadside writer, an obsessive about movie minutiae and other trivia. (I thought Perkus’s name sounded familiar—it’s pretty damn distinctive, after all—turns out I’d previously encountered him in the Zadie Smith–edited The Book of Other People.) Much of the novel's action centers around Perkus’s 84th Street apartment (readily imaginable to me because I went to school 3 blocks away), where the characters snipe at one another, watch surreal movies—"Guns don't kill detectives. Love does," Perkus urgently quotes from a Steve Martin film noir—and smoke a lot of pot, particularly the brand Chronic, from which the book derives part of its title. Meanwhile, a tiger—or is it that a story concocted by the mayor’s office to cover up a lovelorn robot run amok?—menaces the ever-unfinished Second Avenue subway tunnels (I wish that state of limbo were fictional!), eagles nest on a highrise window ledge, an artist bores fjords into upper Manhattan, and the natural world increasingly mirrors the chaotic state of its human inhabitants.

Chronic City doesn’t tell a story so much as map out a (mostly) imaginary place and time and set of characters. The chapter I heard Lethem read did this, I think, more brilliantly than any other part of the book. In it, Chase attends a dinner party with a variety of preposterously named characters. He pokes fun at the social mores of rich Manhattan (a thing I could poke you a hole or two in myself) and introduces two of the novel’s main characters, mayor’s-office-man Richard Abneg and socialite Georgina Hawkmanaji, whom Abneg seduces to dramatic effect. I like Lethem’s snarky takes on the high life and consumerism. He has some great one-liners—“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chain stores”; “…like other truly powerful men Arnheim seemed a bit of a gravitational sinkhole, a place where other men’s hopes had gone to die”—which accompany his consistently satirical take on more drawn-out scenes.

I would give you more details of the plot—or whatever it is—but I’m not sure what I would tell you. In a conversation with Perkus, Chase complains, “It all feels a little plotty to me… I was never one for plots.” Perkus’s reply? “Too bad, since you’re in one.” But Perkus is lying, at least to a degree. Over the course of my reading, I’d keep putting Chronic City down and picking it up again, I think because it largely didn’t have the driving force of plot to push me along. I’d be continually and happily surprised by how much I enjoyed it when I did pick it up—whether he’s talking about snowflakes or the mythical “chaldrons” the main characters quest after on the internet, Lethem has striking turns of phrase and freely dips into philosophical musings. He has some interesting observations about love, particularly as it pertains to Chase’s relationship to Janice and, later, his infatuation with the ghostwriter Oona Laszlo, who, Chase feels, asks him “to generate a love field broad enough to enclose our fear…to reach Janice in orbit…and cover Oona as well, and anyone else who needed to feel it.” It seems to me, though, that the book largely meanders, much like the Chronic-smoking, aimless characters it portrays. The exception to this is the last 60 pages or so, which I read in one absorbed sitting. These contained a lot of action, answered about as many perplexing questions as they raised, and ended on a beautiful melancholy note. But I’m not sure that 60 pages of sudden plot make up for 400 of meandering. I don’t regret having read the book, but I’d refer you to Motherless Brooklyn instead. I can post about that one day if you’d like.

*No, it's not a review of Arcadia, or Antony and Cleopatra, but I mostly wrote this last week, so I feel a bit of a fraud.

No comments:

Post a Comment