Curiously for a city as significant as New York, it is difficult to name its defining novels. Perhaps because the city has changed so rapidly, a blur of high-finance, immigration, street crime, and then, of course, 9/11, writers have struggled to fix it. Long gone is the mannered society of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth. More recently, there was Tom Wolfe's pulpish Bonfire of the Vanities, where the ticks of upper-class bond traders meshed violently with the beats of Harlem. Then the fall of the Twin Towers changed the landscape, both literally and literary. Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a lyrical search for the secrets of a father who died in the attacks, caught that Zeitgeist. Can Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, transform our view of it again?
His previous works, Motherless Brooklyn and the surreal Fortress of Solitude are also New York novels, but Chronic City takes a tripped-out journey further into the city's psyche, Zola-esque in its eye on social class, sci-fi in its play with reality. At the heart of it is Perkus Tooth whom the narrator, Chase Insteadman, meets in the offices of Criterion, a film company that specialises in dusting off forgotten classics and repackaging them.
Tooth, ever unkempt in a frayed suit, is a has-been cult hero. His moment came in the 1970s when he flyposted pop-culture critiques across the walls of the city, winning him a column in Rolling Stone. Now lost in a blur of cannabis and cheeseburgers, he alternates between bouts of lucidity - he calls them ellipses - and debilitating cluster headaches.
Chase is drawn to him as a distraction from his own ellipsis: his fiancee Janice is an astronaut on an ill-fated spaceship adrift in space. A former child star in a well-known sitcom, Chase has a new public persona forced on him. He is the astronaut's tragic lover, sustained by the letters transmitted to him by Nasa and then, mawkishly, reprinted in the press. He has become a favourite at dinner parties where rich friends want to pick over his heart's story.
He takes refuge in Tooth's 84th Street Manhattan apartment. There, amid the squalor of half-eaten takeaways and spliff ends, dial-up modems, films and music piled high, he can avert his eyes from the sky, admit he barely cares for Janice, and lose himself in a haze of marijuana and Tooth's frantic conversations which bounce around modern cultural icons like a high-speed pinball.
Plot is hardly relevant for what is, in part, a stoner's novel. Not a lot happens, apart from a search for a mystical ceramic vase, which defies explanation in a short review. Tooth and his rag-bag of friends - squatter-turned-mayoral adviser Richard Abneg and his rich girlfriend Georgina, Chase's new romantic interest Oona, the local tramp and a drug dealer - flip between actual New York, fictionalised New York and virtual New York, played on in the second half of the novel in a kind of Second Life.
One evening the gang are crowded around Tooth's cranky old computer, consulting Wikipedia about whether Marlon Brando is dead. This interplay - of distinguishing the real from the projection of Lethem's imagination - is Lethem at his most artful. Mixed into the narrative are such detailed references that the reader can't quite fix against the fluid truths of the internet and virtual worlds. Brando's Wikipedia date of death is erased before their, and our, eyes. Criterion is a real company, just as Lethem describes it, but an episode of Columbo starring John Cassavetes doesn't exist. Nor does Tooth. But that didn't stop this reviewer, and many others, Googling him and discovering his Facebook entry. So does that make him virtually real?
Lethem recently said he thought New York was "the first science-fiction city... defined by people's projections of it and the idea... that you go there and you become what you're meant to become." Perhaps that's why New York seems elusive to most novelists. It is a virtual city, an idea. But today, this virtual idea has also become a virtual reality. And that's what Lethem has captured.Reuse content