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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Has Jonathan Lethem, who started out as a masterful reconstructive surgeon
building genre formulas into high literature, turned into our greatest exponent
of the “buddy novel”?  The signs were evident in
Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and
even more pervasive in
The Fortress of Solitude (2003), but stand out all the
more starkly in his
Chronic City (2009), which also finds Lethem returning to the
New York terroir of his best known work.  

Then again, this is Jonathan Lethem we are talking
about.  So don’t expect a conventional story of
budding friendship.   This is not
Tuesdays with Morrie  
or even
Bouvard et Pécuchet.  Chase Insteadman and
Perkus Tooth—oddball character names not found in
any phone directory are a trademark of this author—
settle into an unconventional alliance after meeting
in the offices of a DVD reissue house where both are
helping on projects.  Chase is a former child television
star living off residuals who has been enlisted to
provide voiceovers.  Tooth is an extravagant cultural
critic, formerly with
Rolling Stone, hired to write liner
notes.  Together they form an odd couple, the critic
serving as oracle and madcap mentor to the thespian.  

As with
The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem engages the reader with a scene-
setting that appears to reside squarely in the realist tradition…but then
gradually mixes in elements of the fantastic that shake the epistemological
foundations of the narrative.   At first, these details in
Chronic City come across
as merely peculiar in a
National Enquirer sense:  a tiger is loose in Manhattan,
our actor has a well-publicized romance with an astronaut stuck in outer space,
an inexplicable chocolate smell settles in over the city.  But then these sidebar
plots get stranger and stranger and threaten to take over the novel.  

In a throwaway line, the reader learns that
The New York Times now publishes
two different editions, one that is “war-free” and the other that includes all the
news fit to print.  By the time Lethem alerts us to the Chinese high-tech war in
outer space, we know that something strange is happening on the outskirts of
our story.  Gradually Lethem’s realistic central plot is counterpoised against
paranoid conspiracy theories, virtual reality treasure hunts, rumors of predatory
robots, and other increasingly outré elements.  But the marvel is how Lethem
keeps his intimate character-driven story, and the shifting sands of love and
friendship, at the center of his novel, even as it veers into the unknown.  

I have
written elsewhere of this type of writing, which I call conceptual fiction.  
It plays sly games with our conceptions of reality, experimenting with contextual
frameworks the same way Joyce and Faulkner took chances with sentence
structure.  This bold approach to storytelling deserves more respect—it is, I
believe, the animating spirit behind much of the freshest and least predictable
contemporary writing—and under the hands of authors such as Jonathan
Michael Chabon, Mark Z. Danielewski and the late David Foster
Wallace, conceptual fiction has started to emerge from the pulp fiction ghetto
into the fashionable literary salons.   
Chronic City is a classic example of the
grand and delightful literary structures such conceptual writing can produce.  

Of course Michiko Kakutani, arbiter of literary taste resident over at
The New
York Times
, hates a book of this sort.  Her dour sensibility always puts her at
odds with playful, expansive fiction, especially if it has any conceptual twist
included. Lethem’s novel is “overstuffed”
in her view.  It is worth noting that, in
similar Nutrisystems-type assessments, she called
House of Leaves and Infinite
Jest “fat and self-indulgent,” while  Pynchon was merely “bloated.”  No doubt,
she likes her stories to present anorexic tendencies.  God bless her, but I want
more meat on the bone in the novels I read.   Even so, I am not clamoring for a
"Kakutani-free" edition of the
Times.  Au contraire, on the basis of her
impressive track record, she has become my single best contrary indicator on
the literary scene.  When she delivers a hatchet job, I know it’s a novel I need
to check out.  So don’t trust me on
Chronic City, trust her.

Yet unlike the conceptual fictions of the past, which made their reality-
challenging premises the centerpiece of the story—if the book included an
invisible man or a time machine or a war between worlds, it would not only
dominate the plot but typically show up in the title—Lethem’s narrative still
relies on good old fashioned authorial values.   
Chronic City succeeds in large
part because of its exemplary character development, smart dialogue, shifting
emotional attachments and detachments, and other elements of blocking and
tackling. There are no throwaway scenes or hollow figures here.  The quality of
the writing is stellar from the outset and never flags.  From the standpoint of
metaphor and description, this is Lethem’s finest work yet.

So you can read this book to enjoy the fanciful fantasies or the real-life
elements or just the fine prose.  But you can also read
Chronic City as a roman à
clef.    It’s hard not to identify the media mogul turned New York mayor Jules
Arnheim with the real-life incumbent of that position.  The long, challenging
novel which Lethem’s characters can’t seem to get rid of—
Obstinate Dust by
Ralph Warden Meeker—may remind you of another title and author mentioned
earlier in this review.  Along the way, you are invited to ponder the taller, lesser
talented member of a defunct pop-rock duo, or the conceptual artist who has
built his reputation on radical installations now working his disruptive craft in
New York, and other possibly familiar personalities.  

As the book evolves, its buddy story blossoms while the realistic frame that
holds it starts to fade at the edges.  Lethem mixes in a romantic triangle in
which one of its hyper-acute angles stretches out into the stellar regions, but
even the love story’s apparent reality begins to falter.  At a certain point,
Perkus Tooth ponders whether his entire life is being controlled by an outside
force—which might be his paranoia speaking or, then again, simply the post-
modern character contemplating his author.  As Lethem unwinds his “concepts,”
they typically present both plot resolutions and new philosophical questions—
quite a stunning achievement!

Certainly, there is enough here to keep you wondering.  Lethem winds up most
of the key elements of his story at his conclusion, but leaves others open-ended
to invite further puzzlement and hypothesis.  The result is a marvelous book,
phantasmagorical enough to delight, speculative enough to inspire inquiry, and
with sufficient emotional charge to please those who—yawn!—just come along
to cheer on the buddies.  

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Chronic City

by Jonathan Lethem
Contact Ted Gioia at

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