Faber & Faber £14.99 (467pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Chronic City, By Jonathan Lethem

Over the past 15 years, I have made repeated attempts to learn to admire the novels of Jonathan Lethem. This may seem a quixotic ambition. After all, I have plenty of novels to read by writers I already like, and even the most generous of readers allow themselves a three-strikes-and-you're-out attitude. The reason why I've kept persisting is partly because so many of my friends admire his writing, but mainly because his work engages with so many essential contemporary concerns that few other authors address.

Foremost among these is his engagement with genre, especially the paranoid science fiction of Philip K Dick (Lethem recently edited the Library of America edition of Dick's selected novels). In his early work, novels such as Gun, With Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table, this influence was most explicit, but his most admired novel Motherless Brooklyn is a detective story. He was still smuggling ideas from superhero comics into his most serious book, The Fortress of Solitude in 2003.

Also essential to Lethem's work is a deep understanding of popular culture - films, music, comics - and their impact in shaping his characters' consciousness. But, unlike many writers who share these youthful concerns, he is not afraid to address serious political and philosophical subjects. Viewed like this, he seems the most essential author writing today.

Yet, for this reader at least, nothing clicked. The early work seemed thin, I found the Tourette's-suffering protagonist of Motherless Brooklyn tedious, and it took me three attempts to get through The Fortress of Solitude. His most recent novel, You Don't Love Me Yet, got me through a long bus ride, but I completed this inconsequential book about a band with no real sense of why Lethem had written it.

So I started Chronic City anticipating a struggle, but soon found myself, to my amazement and gratitude, more gripped by the novel than almost anything I read in the last year.

Admittedly, your enjoyment of it will depend on your tolerance for fiction about pop culture. The book's structure seems to have been largely designed to facilitate long conversations about Steve Martin, the Rolling Stones and Marlon Brando between the two main characters. These are Chase Insteadman, a former child star rich enough to sit in burger bars discussing the Criterion Collection all day, and Perkus Tooth, a somewhat paranoid pop critic based on one of Lethem's real-life mentors, the music writer Paul Nelson.

It will also help if you can cope with yet another novel that seems to be set in a parallel reality, a science-fiction trope so hackneyed that it can even be found in junk TV shows like Fringe and Heroes. But, those hurdles cleared, this book provides rich reading pleasure.

It's not merely about two men discussing pop culture, of course, but also Chase's fiancée Janice Trumbull, an astronaut trapped on the International Space Station - and the movements of a giant tiger rampaging through New York, an imaginary ceramic named chaldron that only exists in an online game, romantic rivalry and, perhaps most of all, how to live in an alternate reality.

Put like that, I realise it sounds hideous, but although it falls apart in the final hundred pages, until then the novel is indecently enjoyable. Where Lethem excels is in capturing the value of a life dedicated to observation, whether seeking out secret meanings in Hollywood comedies and old albums, or watching the interaction between the wealthy at Upper East Side dinner parties. Many readers may regard such preoccupations as trivial, but Lethem convinces you of their value. It is also part of a larger narrative game. Only through careful reading and regular trips to the internet can the reader truly inhabit Chronic City. Forcing us to adopt this approach is Lethem's true achievement. In doing so, he makes Chase Insteadmans of us all.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Cherry' (Phoenix)

Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices