Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Chronic City," Jonathan Lethem (2009): A stoner's Manhattan, 20 minutes into the future

Unlike the sunny, drug-coated California of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City is future New York at its most monochrome, a doper's downer of a scene where everything's all glittering with snow, there's very little heat, and the mysterious Tiger that prowls the subway has a love life but the characters aboveground really have none. Pynchon's characters, at least, have souls warmed by that California sun. Lethem's cast of ineffectual misfits in Chronic City have nothing but Ice at their core.

This is a parable of a novel -- not in the religious sense, although the mysteries of belief in something larger play a part -- but in its all-surface, little-substance plot there's a lot to consider. Like a 1960s rock song whose lyrics add up to intimations of something grand and important (let's not name names here) Chronic City winds a stoner's way to meaning ... something more, even if Lethem himself couldn't really figure out what, exactly, it all means. And, to resurrect the old phraseology, that's pretty heavy.

Only, it really isn't. The signifying names -- Chase Insteadman, Perkus Tooth, Oona Laszlo, the Hawkman, Laird Noteless -- are more interesting than the characters themselves, and the story (such as there is) wanders doper style through scenes and conspiratorial plots that are like hearing about a party afterward at which you weren't stoned, and only knew one person who was really a friend of somebody else. (At one point, Insteadman tells an overzealous movie producer about a script that never arrived, "I didn't get it." "I love it! You didn't get it. There's nothing to get, Chase!" the producer zings back, clueless. Many readers will feel the same way.)

"Yet for all I felt stranded and bankrupt that day as I slumped back in my empty turret, a Rapunzel unbeckoned from below, not even sick and raving feverish anymore, just as natty clean and straight of posture and pointlessly deferential as I'd been before I met Perkus Tooth or Oona Laszlo, too noble to pursue strange redheads in elevators, not noble enough to live out my scripted role as Janice Trumbull's betrothed, rather somewhat hopelessly between, I was, in fact, about to be rescued. As if they'd been testing me, Perkus and Oona gathered me back into the strange consolations of their company just before I petulantly flunked out of it."

The repeated references to music and movies and art that are meant to bind this group of people together, however loosely, are the in-jokes you missed at the party: Marlon Brando in a Muppet movie ... the Stones' lips-and-tongue logo on a woolen hat ... The Twilight Zone platinum collection four-disc set ... Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Is this the future or merely twenty minutes ahead?

Apparently no one reads (even Insteadman his own fiancee's letters), but they share a common knowledge of media-by-pixel. Perkus, the one-time rock critic and poster-artist, has developed a mistrust of the printed word altogether and scans the typeface of the New York Times for its hidden meanings.

As self-absorbed and insular as these characters are, twitching in their orbits like Perkus' wayward eye itself, they become increasingly more difficult to care about in the book. The only real element of human kindness and love comes in the letters of Chase Insteadman's astronaut fiancee, caught in her own drama circling high above the earth, and blissfully unaware of the human chaos below.

"We're soaring atoms, Chase, that's what orbit consists of, the inhuman hastening of infinitesimal speck-like bodies through an awesome indifferent void ... Inside Northern Lights we've managed to kid ourselves that we exist, that we're curvaceous or lumpy or angular, bristling with hair and snot, taking up a certain amount of room, and that space and time have generously accorded a margin in which we're invited to operate ..."

That inhuman hastening counts for pretty heavy stuff in Chronic City. And intentioned or not, Lethem's parable may well be telling us all simply to look ... up ... once in a while from our own, pixilated universes, unless we should miss the real meaning of it all. The book ends, paradoxically, with both a bang and a whimper, as if Lethem himself isn't really sure what it all signifies. But it's a trip, man, if you're up for it.

Is it science fiction or satire or Pynchon or Barth or .... Kesey-like dope fantasy or ... Apparently the reader is on his own here, the layers of plot like lines in a rock song hoping the reader can make it all make sense, in his own stoner way. After finishing Chronic City, with all of its tricks (the chocolate smells, Ava the three-legged dog, the novel's own insubstantial pixilation), though, the one thing I really craved was a Jackson Hole burger.

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