By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday.
Jonathan Lethem's long been trying to create a hybrid form: an omnivorous novel that blends closely observed detail and vividly drawn realistic characters with elements of the fantastic. His earliest books were marketed as science fiction, but even then his models were those at the margins of the genre like J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick (Dick is a bit of a totem for Lethem, and he recently edited two volumes of his work for The Library of America). With his quirky detective novel, Motherless Brooklyn, he came into his own as a writer, and his autobiographical novel, The Fortress of Solitude, showed he was capable of greatness. His last book, You Don't Love Me Yet, a droll rock 'n' roll romantic comedy set in L.A., was a bit of a misfire.
In Chronic City, Lethem returns to New York City, but this time he moves from his native borough of Brooklyn to Manhattan. The book is narrated by Chase Insteadman, a former child actor coasting on his residuals and his charm. In the offices of The Criterion Collection, he meets Perkus Tooth, an unhinged freelance culture critic fueled by a massive intake of cannabis. He forms a bond with Tooth, and through him meets Richard Abneg, a former radical who's sold out and works as a fixer for the billionaire mayor.
This being a Lethem novel, the quotidian New York we know is not the one we encounter in the novel. A mysterious tiger, either biological or mechanical, is destroying random buildings in the city, a persistent grey fog drapes the streets, and Chase's astronaut fiancée Janice sends him heartbroken letters from a doomed space station. There's also a virtual Second Life-type world that's a major factor in the book, and the distinction between what's real and what's fake resonates on many levels of the story.
Do we really need one more novel about Manhattan? When it's so richly reimagined as this one is, the answer is yes, despite some misgivings.
Chronic City is a book full of set pieces that often have little narrative function beyond the author's desire to pack in as many cultural observations and imaginative flourishes as he can, and occasionally Perkus and his pop culture rants become a tad wearying. Sometimes the parts of the book can seem greater than the whole. When Lethem pulls out some P.K. Dick-ian reality twists in the last few chapters, it seems a bit contrived.
Despite all the imaginative furniture, the heart of the novel is ultimately the touching friendship that develops between the vastly different characters, Chase and Perkus. Chronic City is a flawed baggy monster of a novel that's infinitely preferable to myriad bloodless books that take no chances at all.