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Chronic City: A Novel [Hardcover]

Jonathan Lethem
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Oct. 13 2009
The acclaimed author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude returns with a roar with this gorgeous, searing portrayal of Manhattanites wrapped in their own delusions, desires, and lies.

Chase Insteadman, a handsome, inoffensive fixture on Manhattan's social scene, lives off residuals earned as a child star on a beloved sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancée, Janice Trumbull, is trapped by a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station, from which she sends him rapturous and heartbreaking love letters. Like Janice, Chase is adrift, she in Earth's stratosphere, he in a vague routine punctuated by Upper East Side dinner parties.

Into Chase's cloistered city enters Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning. Perkus's countercultural savvy and voracious paranoia draw Chase into another Manhattan, where questions of what is real, what is fake, and who is complicit take on a life-shattering urgency. Along with Oona Laszlo, a self-loathing ghostwriter, and Richard Abneg, a hero of the Tompkins Square Park riot now working as a fixer for the billionaire mayor, Chase and Perkus attempt to unearth the answers to several mysteries that seem to offer that rarest of artifacts on an island where everything can be bought: Truth.

Like Manhattan itself, Jonathan Lethem's masterpiece is beautiful and tawdry, tragic and forgiving, devastating and antic, a stand-in for the whole world and a place utterly unique.

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"Astonishing....Knowing and exuberant, with beautiful drunken sentences that somehow manage to walk a straight line.....Turbocharged....Intricate and seamless....A dancing showgirl of a novel, yet beneath the gaudy makeup it's also the girl next door: a traditional bildungsroman with a strong moral compass...." New York Times Book Review

"Chronic City is a feverish portrait of the anxiety and isolation of modern Manhattan, full of dark humor and dazzling writing....proves both funny and frightening."--Entertainment Weekly

"Exuberant literary revving.....Lethem's vision of New York can approach the Swiftian. It is impressively observant in its detail and scourging in its mocking satire. There are any number of wicked portraits....His comments on New York life are often achingly exact....So pungent and imaginative"--The Boston Globe

"Ingenious and unsettling...Lethem pulls everything together in a stunning critique of our perceptions of reality and our preconceptions of the function of literature."--San Francisco Chronicle

"Exquisitely written...Funny and mystifying, eminently quotable, resolutely difficult, even heartbreaking, "Chronic City" demonstrates an imaginative breadth not quite of this world."--Cleveland Plain Dealer

"A fluid sense of reality pervades these pages, which explore high society, urban politics, avant-garde art, celebrity mania and the dangers of information overload in an age where context is devalued or ignored....the quality of Lethem's prose and the exuberance of his imagination are reasons enough to read it.....When it comes to style, Lethem has few equals."--Miami Herald

"The novel functions much like Manhattan used to – a mad scramble of connections made and, more often, missed…make(s) a reader ache for a city long gone." – Esquire 

"Entertaining....a prosopographical investigation of New York City by way of a handful of strange, unclassifiable characters (and some remarkable writing)....splendidly observed"--Wall Street Journal

"Brilliant....exquisite wit and dazzling intricacy of every single paragraph......roves he's one of the most elegant stylists in the country, and he's capable of spinning surreal scenes that are equal parts noir and comedy.... evocative and engaging....As a reflection on modern alienation and the chronic loneliness that afflicts us in our faux world, this is beautifully, often powerfully done."--The Washington Post

"A sprawling book about pop culture and outer space…realistic and fantastic, serious and funny, warm and clear eyed. One of the new generation's most ambitious writers, Lethem again offers a novel that deals with nothing less important than the difference between truth and lies. And some stories about good cheeseburgers." - The Daily Beast 

"A stellar, multi-layered novel." – GQ 

"Lethem has often sought to interweave the realistic and the fantastic; in Chronic City the result is nearly seamless." - New York Magazine

"[Lethem is] a writer who resists's hard to remain unsusceptible to his euphoria"--Los Angeles Times

"Friction, charisma, unpleasantness, and threat are key to this tale of scintillating misfits.....dizzyingly brilliant urban enigma"--O Magazine

"One of America's finest novelists explores the disconnections among art, government, space travel and parallel realities, as his characters hunger for elusive meaning…… All truths and realities are open to interpretation, even negotiation, in this brilliantly rich novel….Lethem's most ambitious work to date."
Kirkus Reviews, starred
"Pow! Letham has done it again. When it comes to brainy adventures full of laughter and heart this master has few equals. What a joy from the first page to the last."
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook
"I'm reminded of the well-rubbed Kafka line re: A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within us. Lethem's book, with incredible fury, aspires to do little less. It's almost certainly his best novel. It's genuinely great."
–David Shields, author of The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead

About the Author

JONATHAN LETHEM is the author of seven novels. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Lethem has also published his stories and essays in The New Yorker, Harper's, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the New York Times, among others.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars another great book by Lethem March 28 2010
A few years ago, I was staying at a friend's cabin and saw "Motherless Brooklyn". Being a sucker for cover art, I picked it up and the weekend plans for socializing were ruined. I couldn't put it down.

I've read a handful of Lethem's other books, and I'd say that this is right up there with Motherless Brooklyn and a Fortress of Solitude. Interesting characters and a dash of surreal.

I did find that it started a bit slow, but once it got rolling I was deep inside the world of Perkus Tooth and Chase Insteadman. After finishing it the other day, I keep churning it around in my head and can't shake it.

If you've enjoyed his other books, I totally recommend it.
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99 of 110 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hipsters Without a Cause Sept. 26 2009
By M. JEFFREY MCMAHON - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I'm a big fan of Lethem's writings. I like his sensibility and always feel he has something compelling to say about the human condition.

Chronic City, like Mark Leyner's Et Tu, Babe, is full of jokes, especially about the hipster crowd. A lot of the jokes have an in-the-know or insider quality. The characters' names, Chase Insteadman, Perkus Tooth, Oona Laszlo, to name a few, sound eerily similar to Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. There is also Ralph Warden Meeker, the author of a 1,000-page novel Obstinate Dust. This seems like a tongue-in-cheek allusion to David Foster Wallace and his sprawling Infinite Jest. One of my favorite jokes is how film critic Perkus Tooth retypes New Yorker articles in a different font style because he believes their gravitas and persuasion is dependent, not on content, but on the iconography of the New Yorker itself. As a compendium of jokes written to be enjoyed by the literati cognoscenti the novel is hilarious.

Sadly, though, Chronic City didn't work as a compelling and absorbing narrative. In fact, the plot left me incurably cold, emotionally distant, and ultimately frustrated.

Stylistically, the novel is a success as Lethem's language and craft always prove eloquent and polished. But this self-consciously hipster novel suffers from a lacking plot engine, self-indulgent characters prone to long-winded discussions about their esoteric knowledge of the arts, and as such the novel suffers from being more of an intellectual exercise with little emotional power. Its theme of hipsters lacking direction doesn't have enough plot impetus or emotional involvement to be rendered with the kind of power I expect from Jonathan Lethem. Five stars for jokes; three stars for plot line.
64 of 78 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What goes around ... keeps coming back. Oct. 1 2009
By Dick Johnson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
In case you miss some events the first time, don't worry Lethem will return to them - and return to them - until you want to scream "Get on with the story! (If there is one.)". Thus went the first half of this book.

Actually there were some attempts to mingle several stories, none of which will push this to the top of Lethem's bibliography. As much as I usually enjoy Lethem, this one was a disappointment.

The whole book is about some amorphous Manhattan of perhaps some not-so-distant future. The characters are equally as formless as they wander without purpose from one juvenile, hedonistic romp with sex, pot and booze, to another. They are equally unwilling to provide meaning to each other's lives - and they are 'friends'.

Of course, no book by Lethem is a total flub. There are always enough zingers and turns of phrase to keep even a lesser effort worth another turn of a page. The interactions of the characters are presented in a noirish style, and where the novel does advance, there were some moments of meaning.

Fortunately, I'll probably have forgotten this one before Lethem releases his next one - and hopefully the next one will have something about it to remember. I suggest you to wait for that next one and give this one a pass.
43 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A fine book, but not for me. Oct. 1 2009
By Theoden Humphrey - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
There's nothing wrong with this book, but it was a mistake for me. I got it because I am an admirer of Jonathan Lethem -- and I still am -- but while I loved "Gun, With Occasional Music" and "The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye," his literary novels are just too detached and meandering for me to enjoy. I love the way he writes, and there are some wonderful flourishes in this book -- I particularly liked Laird Noteless, the "sculptor" whose works are nothing more than enormous holes in the ground in awkward places, and the moment when the main character, Chase Insteadman, has one of those classic hypochondriacal synaesthetic attacks, when he is overwhelmed by sensation and alienation -- and it turns out he has the flu.

But for the most part, the book felt wrong to me. I need more of a narrative and less self-aware humor. I have also known people like Perkus Tooth, and I don't like them, so sympathy for this guy was hard to drum up. For those who enjoy postmodernist literature, I think this book would probably be a wonderful experience, but I couldn't finish it. Which, of course, makes me feel like a semi-literate buffoon, but there are too many books out there to read, and enjoy reading, for me to spend more time slogging through something that I can't get a handle on.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars struggle and complicity Jan. 18 2010
By Vince Leo - Published on
Saying that Chronic City is a book about male friendship is like saying 2001 A Space Odyssey is a movie about an expedition to Jupiter, meaning not really. Chronic City is actually about representation, about what things "stand for," and about the illusions that result from the late-capitalist infotainment/political industry disruption of the representational framework. Because it is set in an alternative Manhattan full of historical characters and fictional events, locating the real within the pages of Chronic City isn't difficult, it's effing impossible, and that's the point.

The object of the book's and JL's desire is the Manhattan of the late 70s: the innocent rebellion of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; the theoretical and political maturation of pop music critics; the street art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. It's nostalgic for a Manhattan that still had within its borders the means to resist the onslaught of the corporate symbolic order. That said, there's no way to prepare yourself for the onslaught of JL's anger, curiosity, and sadness for the world that didn't materialize (or did) from that historic moment of critique. The writing is dazzling: from theoretical discussions on the nature of meaning to grand set pieces with dozens of characters to a narrative so perfectly paced and constructed, its surprise ending will keep you awake for days.

There IS a male friendship in Chronic City: between an actor (a walking, talking, VERY sexual imaginary) and a cultural critic (sorry cultural critics: we're talking ABSOLUTE-ZERO sex), but all the characters in the book participate to the degree to which they interact with the basic relationships of representation and real, truth and big-other power. The story within the story within the story is that reality exists only as we construct it through struggle. Illusion isn't the natural state of things but the measure of our complicity with the world constructed by the powers that be. Unfortunately, it's not that simple and the true accomplishment of Chronic City is how JL imagines the relationship of struggle and complicity as a vast, complex totality, an all-too-human ecosystem of good intentions and lost opportunities. Chronic City is replete with postmodern cynicism and lit in-jokes, but it is also infused with sympathy and generosity for those who seek and fail and continue seeking. In this, JL provides more than a call to arms, he provides a measure of grace, without which the struggle for reality would be neither possible nor worth the effort.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Abstractions Inside of Abstractions, With a Mechanical Heart Dec 19 2011
By Nom de Plume - Published on
It will be many readers' misfortune to read "Chronic City" without ever having lived in Manhattan. They may dismiss the work summarily as a self-indulgent exercise in postmodernism, and I will understand why. Rarely have I encountered a piece of contemporary literature which relied so heavily on setting - not just physically, since (as we shall see) this version of New York is not altogether the one with which we're familiar - but rather, the collective state of mind of those who make their home in the city.

Manhattan is like a fractal - worlds unfold into worlds. The island splits into neighborhoods, which are made up of blocks, which in turn contain buildings which may each contain as many people (and stories) as an entire small town. Considered from within, the island as a whole represents an incomprehensible amount of information. Residents deal with this by compartmentalizing their lives, restricting their movements to comfortable routes within specific neighborhoods, places where they can know and be known. For many long-time Manhattanites in particular, a few blocks may represent an insurmountable distance and an alien world.

It's this sense of urban imprisonment which Lethem so ingeniously captures in "Chronic City." He realizes New York City as a tremendous machine OF incalculable size and complexity, which inflicts its will on residents rather than vice-versa. Those who have glimpsed the machinations of the city are seen here as prophets, transcendent geniuses, or omniscient politicians. Others - including our main characters - are simply trapped, and exist without fully understanding their confinement. The novel is therefore bathed in a sense of psychedelic claustrophobia.

Yes, the characters seem somewhat unfeeling. Yes, they behave like avatars towards one another, with little interpersonal understanding. But given the revelations implied by the end of the story, is this truly inappropriate? Only one solitary being in "Chronic City" has truly escaped - to space, no less - and, as we are made to guess, this character may be no more than the imagination of an imagination.

This is a tremendous, weird and complicated book. I highly recommend it.
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