The City and the City
Jonathan Lethem takes Mahattan
by Molly Templeton
In the space of two books — 1999’s detective tale Motherless Brooklyn and 2003’s The Fortress of Solitude, a dense and magical story about grow-ing up, the ’70s, race, comic books, gentrification, more — Jonathan Lethem became a Brooklyn writer. He was so wedded to Brooklyn that his Fortress follow-up, You Don’t Love Me Yet, felt awkward, in part, just because it was set in California. It was Lethem on vacation.
In Chronic City (Doubleday, $27.95), Lethem crosses the bridge to Manhattan, a place that sustains countless versions of itself: “Live in a Manhattan of your own devising, a bricolage of the right bagel and the right whitefish, even if from different shops,” the book’s narrator, former child star Chase Insteadman, thinks. The Manhattan in which Chase lives is full of distance and half-truths; when we meet Chase, he’s doing the voiceover for a DVD, acting as the deceased director by reading statements the director made in old interviews. His is life is largely defined by his fiancée, Janice Trumbull, an astronaut whose space station is trapped by Chinese mines. Her letters to him, censored by mission control, appear in the War Free version of The New York Times. Chase’s world is reshaped when he meets Perkus Tooth, a former rock critic whose wide-ranging monologues are peppered with real and fictional pop cultural references: Marlon Brando, Gnuppets, Twilight Zone episodes, Steve Martin movies, the controlling nature of The New Yorker’s font. The first time Chase hangs out with Perkus, he muses afterwards about whether they could really have talked about as many things as he thinks they talked about in the span of one evening.
It’s a fair question for Lethem’s novel, as well: Can he really have packed this dizzying, endlessly referential story, this Manhattan that exists and doesn’t, into the space of one novel? Can 467 pages contain a building-destroying tiger that may be two stories tall or may be a rogue machine, originally imported to dig the Second Avenue subway line; a Second Life-type game called Yet Another World that contains treasures so compelling they beckon to people who don’t even known their provenance; a ghostwriter whose own self is elusive, ravenlike and utterly appealing to Chase; or even Chase and Perkus, their strange and touching friendship cemented with pot, cheeseburgers and a lengthy quest for truth, authenticity, something that might dull the urge to crown things with a “mystical halo of interpretation”?
It can. Chronic City invents yet another Manhattan, one in which former broadsheet-penners live on the Upper East Side and rich socialites turn old apartment buildings into homes for dogs, where the mayor’s aide and the former child star might know more about the truth of things than the people who appear to know and where lower Manhattan, covered in a gray fog for some time, only has a gaping hole in it because an artist put one there. Lethem has doubled back on himself, pairing his most speculative notions, his most Gibsonesque curiosities, with the sometimes unlikely reality of New York City, from its subways to its street merchants to its diners and hot dog stands and cafés. Lethem’s fictional New York, populated with characters who wonder if they’re living in a simulacrum, is as real a version of the city as anyone else’s, a place made up of memories, stories, reflections and ideas, some real, some false, but all woven into one unexpectedly warm and oddly personal whole. “To whom does New York City belong?” one character wonders. To the writers, the dogs, the socialites, the readers, the birds the homeless guy in the alley. To everyone.