Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Quick Queer Book Review - Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Posted by Riot

I loved Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, so I was very excited to get my hands on his latest novel, Chronic City.  Alas, I was disappointed.

Chronic City follows the life of a former child sitcom star, now an adult, and his friendship with a former Rolling Stone rock music critic, his romantic affair with a ghost writer, and his oblivious employment by the City of New York.

While Chase Insteadman's friends are all wildly eccentric and interesting, Chase himself is rather dull, floating through life on residuals from his childhood career, apparently caring deeply about nothing.  His girlfriend is an astronaut stuck on a space station, doomed to die a slow and agonizing death, but while the world follows her plight in the "war free" version of the Times, Chase can't even be bothered to respond to her letters, let alone feel bad for the affair he commences.  The story is told largely through Chase's first person perspective, forcing the reader to attempt to empathize, but I never could bring myself to care about the guy.

This fatal flaw ruins a story that otherwise has a ton of good ingredients.  Lethem's prose is enthralling.  He can spin out fantastical dialogue and sentences that seem impossibly cumbersome, but manage to be both beautiful and grammatically sound.  Literary and cultural references to New York City drip from nearly every paragraph.  Heck, the city itself is a near-alternate universe of sorts, differing from reality in fantastic and meaningful ways, recalling for me Samuel Delany's Dhalgren and turning the whole work in an unexpected sci-fi/fantasy direction, which is my preferred genre for reading.

Unfortunately, the disparate ingredients never come together into a satisfying whole.  I am loathe to put down any book once I have started.  I persisted through this one, firmly believing that at some point a twist would be revealed, and all the histrionics of the Seinfeld-esque characters would shine some relevant or amusing light on an obscure phenomenon of living in this crazy city, or at least there would be a car chase and gun fight.  The payoff never came.  There was no money shot.  The story just fizzled out and slunk away, appropriately embarrassed to have abused my attention.

Maybe I just didn't get it.  My taste in fiction is decidedly lowbrow.  I toss in the occasional Chabon or Salinger so that my shelves aren't entirely filled with books that have space ships on the covers.  I can usually get into those oddballs.  This one has me longing for some clue that will catalyze the gestalt.  Giant tigers roam the streets, wrecking train tracks and diners.  Megalomaniac starchitects design grotesque memorials that are nothing more than giant holes in the ground.  Everyone who lays eyes on a kind of virtual reality ceramic vase becomes psychedelically obsessed with obtaining one.  It's difficult for me to imagine that there are readers out there taking away anything insightful or entertaining from this book's bizarre elements, but if you can make sense of it all, please let me know.

I don't want to believe that Lethem has wasted my time, but at this point I can't call it any other way.


  1. It's not you, Riot. It's a widespread malaise in a lot of the writing produced today. The writers seem to have no sense of story. Perhaps they don't have much to say. Perhaps they should do poetry instead of narrative. Those who cannot build still may decorate.

    (I'll be reviewing Netherland soon and I kept plowing through it, as did you the Lethem, hoping for something that never really happened.)

    These writers get away with this under the umbrella of postmodernism. Bah.

  2. Caring for somebody who doesn't care for anybody is a challenge. Melville succeeded with Bartleby, but I think he did that by having the story narrated by a very compassionate character. Thanks for an insightful review, Christian.

  3. Riot, this squares with my Lethem experience, too. I read The Fortress of Solitude a few years ago. Totally loved the beginning and middle. The story was engaging, the characters intriguing, and there was just the right touch of comic book superhero unreality to leave you lightly scratching your head. Best of all was the vivid depiction of pre-gentrified Boerum Hill, painting a not-too-long-ago time and place I had never seen, directly on top of the one we know well. But then the last third of the book seemed to rip the earlier cohesive narrative apart, introduce new cliched characters, and replaced Brooklyn with Vermont. While originally I couldn't put it down, I ended up not really caring to finish it, and forced myself to do so, hoping, like you, that some revelatory final scene would make it worth the effort. Alas.