Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is a frenetic tale of eccentric oddballs set adrift in a cracked version of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The title character, Chase Insteadman, a former teenage television star, deals with a forced separation from his astronaut fiancée by taking up with a self-denying culture-critic stoner named Perkus Tooth, a city official named Richard Abneg whose job is to handle rumors of a massive tiger lurking beneath the Second Avenue subway, and a ghostwriter named Oona Laszlo, who refuses to let Chase love her as much as he loves the astronaut.
Sorry for that lengthy sentence, but that really only scratches the surface of the oddities present in Chronic City. Take the weather (please), it starts snowing right around the time of the mayor’s Christmas party and is still going, although sporadically, into August. Other aspects of Lethem’s Manhattan are just slightly off, for instance, his mayor is a short Jewish media-mogul billionaire, but it’s not Bloomberg. His Lower Manhattan is enveloped by a “gray fog” but no explanation is given for its existence, though the Twin Towers are mentioned obliquely at one point. Oh, and Perkus Tooth is obsessed with a popular band of puppet-characters known as the Gnuppets.
It’s hard to decide whether this mixture of real names and slight changes is intended to artistically blend reality with unreality, or if the changes are merely the result of some highly litigious rights-holders. Nevertheless, Lethem’s kooky Manhattan is the book’s principal thrill, and the driving force keeping the reader going through some interminable meandering of the plot.
That plot really only kicks into gear when Perkus Tooth discovers a mystical item known as a chaldron. Perkus, Chase, and Richard (as well as Richard’s girlfriend, The Hawkman) are all astounded by the chaldron, which, even though they are merely viewing a picture of it on eBay, seems to hold them under a spell. They are still further astounded to see that the things are selling for thousands and thousands of dollars.
Outside of the quest for chaldrons, which turn out to have a not-so-mystical origin, the novel mainly concerns itself with the relationship between Chase and Oona. The two are forced to remain underground by the public outpouring of support for Chase’s fiancée. Janice Trumbull is the only American on the International Space Station, which has been stranded in orbit by a ring of Chinese space-mines. All of Manhattan is following her travails through her letters, published in the new war-free edition of the New York Times. Chase has become a sort of mascot for the city, a nice distraction from the rampages of the tiger and whatever other secrets the mayor’s office is keeping. Oona is comfortable with keeping the two of them out of the spotlight, but Chase is tired of keeping the flame for a woman he is finding it harder and harder to remember, and starts to push Oona out into the open.
Along the way we also meet a sculptor/architect who builds elaborate underground structures, an apartment complex built by the wealthy to house homeless dogs, and a sprawling epic novel named Obstinate Dust.
This is kitchen-sink writing. Lethem just keeps throwing more and more oddities into the mix, in the vain hope that they will pave over the glaring fact that his novel doesn’t have much of a story, with no satisfactory ending in sight. The ending he does choose is more implausible than any of the little details I’ve sprinkled throughout this review, and is ultimately the oddity that undoes the whole effect.