In Jonathan Lethem’s latest offering, readers are once again thrust into a genre-bending, category-defying and humorously disjointed New York City. In Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, Lethem explored his favorite outer borough through the lens of noir and fantasy—and now he turns his attentions to Manhattan proper with a surrealistic eye that owes as much to Saul Bellow and James Baldwin as it does to Pynchon, Baudrillard and DeLillo.
The narrator of Chronic City, Chase Insteadman, is a former child actor and popular Manhattan socialite who has recently attained notoriety for his personal life—his astronaut fiancée is trapped in the ether, stuck in a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station. In the midst of this tragedy, Chase meets and befriends Perkus Tooth, an intellectual music critic whose quest for drugs, art and truth rivals the urban experience that Chase has always known. Perkus forces our hero to ask what is real, and what is the product of the myth that is Manhattan?
Chase’s Manhattan is almost—but not quite—our own. Rather, it is a secluded island in which the downtown lies hidden behind a mysterious fog (as close as we get to any 9/11 discussion), an escaped tiger roams the Upper East Side and the rich outbid each other in eBay auctions for mystical artifacts. In short, it’s a setting ripe for paranoia, absurd comedy and a very real exploration of the problems of truth and trauma. The Twin Towers have not fallen, but still the city is in crisis.
In many ways, this psychological and sociological investigation makes Chronic City Lethem’s most stimulating book yet. That said, it is long and meandering—occasionally more fun to think about than to actually slough through. Fortunately, Lethem is a stellar writer, and his prose electrifies. Moreover, the sheer ambition and scope of this new novel is exciting and innovative. Who knows what Lethem will try next, but we’re certain it will be anything but the same-old same-old.
Jillian Quint is an Assistant Editor at the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.