By Jonathan Lethem
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.
Jonathan Lethem talks Chronic City, the writer's ear, and characters with minds of their own.
Nov 25, 2009