Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chronic City

When asked to describe Chronic City, author Jonathan Lethem said, 'it's very long, and very strange.'

He wasn't kidding. It is long and strange but immeasurably enjoyable. Though I have to admit, I wonder non-New Yorkers can love it the way I did. It definitely has a sort of insider's perspective and having that perspective enabled me to overlook Chronic City's structural flaws and get lost in the tapestry of indigenous City totems.

I lived in Manhattan between 1994 and 2000. Perhaps these was the meatiest years of America's collective brain-death sabbatical. I lived a very privileged, insular and fortunate life. But something strange was always afoot. It took me a few years to identify it, but after a while, some anomaly would process in my consciousness. Months would pass and I'd realize I hadn't left the island. Not just the island of Manhattan, but I hadn't left Mid-Town. And then I came to realize something incredible - though I lived in the most amazing, dynamic cosmopolitan city on Planet Earth, I led an incredibly isolated existence.

So now we have Lethem's Manhattan. It is a decidedly post-9/11 Manhattan. There are a few hyperbolic fantasy elements: an indecipherable gray mist covers lower downtown and an escaped 'tiger' is on the loose, inflicting guerrilla attacks on random sections of the city. Amid this chaos, a friendship emerges between Chase Insteadman, a former 1980's rat-pack teen actor, and Perkus Tooth, a hermetic writer.

These two form a friendship that primarily exists in Perkus' apartment, where they get very high (on a pot called 'Chronic') while launching into expansive thinking sessions that circumnavigate pop culture and current events. Perkus mostly delivers ideas and Chase receives them gratefully.

Chronic City does three things. In a nod to Don DeLillo, Lethem creates a fantastical unreality to argue that a thinly veiled madness lies underneath our popular culture.

This book also explores something that art has not yet fully dissected - the mood of New York in the Post-9/11 phase. Perkus expounds: Something happened, Chase, there was some rupture in this city. Since then, time's been fragmented. Might have to do with the gray fog, or some other disaster. Whatever the cause, ever since we've been living in a place that's a replica of itself, a fragile simulacrum, full of gaps and glitches. A theme park, really!

Lastly, Lethem is using Perkus and Chase to show two sides of himself. Chase is his public self - the known celebrity. Perkus is his private world, the lone thinker, his wellspring of ideas. Creating Perkus frees Lethem. It also allowed him to take a sly dig at Malcolm Gladwell on page 221.

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