Chronic City 

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Chronic City
By Jonathan Lethem
Available now

Perkus Tooth, a semi-legendary guerilla pop-culture critic with a peripatetic lazy eye, endures signal-drowning "cluster headaches" and receives insight during trancelike "ellipsistic" states. The Manhattan of Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, to which Perkus is our digressive guide, is also a place of clusters—the smoke-filled parties thrown by billionaire Mayor Arnheim—and ellipses—our personalized matrices of home-turf apartments and diners, "the worlds squirreled inside one another."

Chronic City is Lethem's matrix, all magic-realist flourishes (a tiger stalks the UES) and namechecked media figures, movies and musicians—real and invented. Perkus's riffs intermingle Richard Hell and Columbo with mock-ups ("Chthonic Youth"; lost noir The City Is a Maze); like Fortress of Solitude's "Liner Note," Chronic City posits an alternate cultural universe. The Bellovian question is who runs this virtual Manhattan: Arnheim's city is defined by shadowy encroaching capital, like the skyscraper narrowing the perspective from our narrator's window.

Our narrator, right: freelance protege and actor Chase Insteadman, known from sitcom reruns and for his famously marooned astronaut fiancee (or is she?). Chase recalls many first-person observers around whom a constellation of charismatic characters orbits, only hornier and dopier, tone-deaf and patchily omniscient.

The conspiratorial vibe (and funny names) recall Pynchon and DeLillo; Perkus references Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, and Chronic City is lipstick-traced with quotations from Lethem's influences. Lethem draws a fine line between critics and paranoiacs: both obsessively curate obscure evidence of a unifying theme, at risk of seeming wacked-out. On jags sparked by delivery-service weed, Perkus and Chase bid on eBay for "chaldrons"—vases which, like the objects and inventions in Steven Millhauser's stories, seem capable of resolving Manhattan into a shining whole, "where the shadowy, tattered cloak of delusion dissolve[s]." Chronic City looks ever more like Plato's Cave—an allegory Perkus illustrates using the Muppets and an anecdote about Marlon Brando refusing to wear pants.

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