Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review: Art of a sleepwalker

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem follows the story of Chase Insteadman, a once famous (child) actor who now is famous only because he's dating this astronaut in space who can't come home, who finds out that she has cancer on her foot, who writes letters to him that become public so that everyone knows what's going on. As this predicament is happening circling around the planet, Chase is befriending paranoia Criterion Collection essayist Perkus Tooth, who takes an extreme interest in chaldrons, who types out New Yorker articles so that he can read them in 'unfriendly' Courier font so as not to 'trust himself' (as the New Yorker font apparently makes you trust yourself), who is informing Chase about the importance of the Messianic (and perhaps not quite dead, at least in Perkus's eyes) Marlon Brando.

Meanwhile there's something going on in the air as Manhattan smells like chocolate, making people wonder if they're drinking espresso or mocha. Eagles have taken over Richard Abneg's apartment window-ledges, Abneg being a hero of a riot in the East Village and currently the billionaire mayor's aid. Abneg falls in love with a Hawai'ian woman, Georgina Hawkmanaji, who he refers to as Hawkman, and who both desire to win a chaldron on eBay - one of the best scenes written in the novel, and one of the most memorable I've read in a long while.

All that, and a tiger is on the loose, roaming the streets of New York, creating tiger-neighbourhood-watch groups and suspicions that the tiger doesn't really exist or that the tiger is just code for the Second Avenue subway line that has been in the works for more years anyone cares to remember.

Chronic City is a paean to the Upper East Side; to city meandering, a meandering that can only happen in New York City; to the hysteria that Pynchon captures in LA and Dickens captures in London. It's a novel that allows you to enjoy the ridiculous ramblings of a narrator who enjoys tripping out and having conversations under said influence. It's a novel that delights in the chaos, in the concept that 'the city is a maze', exemplified in Perkus Tooth's own discussion of said eponymous 'film':
As Leonard Cohen tells us, "there is a war between the ones who say there is a
war and the ones who say there isn't." Equally, according to Iris Murdoch, "the
bereaved have no language for speaking to the unbereaved." For denizens of this
country of Noir, such protests delineate the incommensurable rift or gulf
between those doomed to patrol the night country and those moored in daylight, a
co-existence of realms, one laid upon the other as veneer. . . .

It goes on. Chronic City is full of incessant ruminations on life and culture and politics - all of which really boils down to a search for truth. The chaldron that these insane characters are searching for may be a stand-in for the holy grail. Chase's sometime lover and ghostwriter of bestselling memoirs, Oona, may be an updated version of Una, the one-true church of Spenser's Faerie Queene. A work so replete with real and false references, with parallel realities and THC-aided descriptions, Chronic City is a masterwork that if you're in the right kind of mood will be ridiculously well worth it.


Greg Zimmerman said...

Real nice review. "...ridiculous ramblings of a narrator who enjoys tripping out and having conversations under said influence." Count me in!


Salvatore said...

Nice, good luck with it Greg. It's a worthy read!