I came across Lethem’s Chronic City by happenstance. It was mentioned in Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock as an example of a modern novel with an unconventional, multithreaded narrative. Further research taught me that it was also named a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year in 2009. That’s some serious street cred.
Intrigued, I purchased a copy, starting it in August 2018 and finishing the last page by January 2019. Its 400+ page length and the fact that I’m a slow book reader contributed to my sloth-like progression, but the main culprit was the substance of the book itself—and that substance is hard to pin down.
I ventured into Lethem’s literary journey with an open mind. Centered around the coming-of-age of Chase Insteadman, a former child television star who develops a second career as the quintessential everyman for New York’s elite social scene, the story travels through inklings of alternate realities, conspiracy theories, and pop culture underbellies. For Perkus Tooth, the main character’s quirky savior of sorts, entertainment is serious business. We’re all just characters in an elaborate maze, and few of us know the truth.
Strange things occur in the novel that support his claim—or at least confirm that something isn’t right: an inexplicably long winter, the smell of chocolate wafting through all of New York City, tiger sightings, and trapped astronauts (one of which happens to be Chase’s longtime girlfriend—maybe). Under the haze of strong weed, which the characters religiously smoke, each of these peculiar happenings had the power to transform the book into a psychological mindfuck. As they presented themselves, I prayed for such a fuck to occur, but Lethem opted for mild foreplay, never daring to move beyond the hypercritical, smug banality that his main character possessed. Each plot development devolved into a neurotic sludge of melodrama, forced tension, and ambitious ideas that never get past their incubation periods.
At least each sludge was beautifully packaged. Lethem is a brilliant wordsmith. Chronic City was filled with dense, multifaceted sentences and obscure cultural references that puts a dictionary and Wikipedia to good use. Still, in spite of his prowess, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel’s premise was secondary to his talent. Like a skilled singer employing excessive amounts of melisma to a simple song, Chronic City’s structure weakened with each page, deflating into a series of expected outcomes and a conclusion that was just plain boring.
I can only hope that Lethem decides to explore a mind like Perkus’ in a future release, letting it take center stage, and giving its theories the fantastical seriousness it deserves.