Chronic City: A Novel Hardcover – Oct 13 2009
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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 pigeonholing....it'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.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
At the start of the book, Chase befriends a free-lance social critic named Perkus Tooth, who then introduces him to a New York of dying cultural import. Like all over-educated stoners, Perkus often ricochets his line of thought down the paths of conspiracy, meta-meaning, and the power of symbols, but his ramblings are so persistent and self-righteous, no one pays close enough attention when one or more of them turn out to be right. Perkus and Chase live in a Manhattan of the future, where war is a constant presence (at least in the newspapers that Chase never reads), a huge gray fog has subsumed half of the city, a post-modern artist goes about installing huge craters in the city, the air sometimes smells like chocolate, and some kind of sentient presence (that may or may not be a tiger) occasionally destroys a building. Oh, and Chase has a fiance named Janice, an astronaut who is stranded in a space station high above the earth.
Ill be the first to say that what Lethem has done here is brilliant (as usual), although I'm also certain that (not living in New York), I didn't "get" much of what he alluded to. This is, basically, a book about living in a book. It's about solipsism, about the meaning of life, about -- in plainer terms -- what constitutes existence. All of the pot smoking seemed like a contrivance when I first read the book, but now it's clear that Lethem is suggesting something else. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and pot smokers are notorious for relentless examination of even the most disparate of life's minutiae, even if they also fail to do any actual living. Whether pot leads to any actual insight or clarity is up for debate by the good people at NORML and DARE. At the very least, Lethem seems to say, it does take the mind out of its own grooves.
If you give this book any kind of deeper examination, you're bound to close it with the hazy idea that you just learned something seriously important (and interesting) and then promptly forgot it again. Lethem arranges the "plots" -- they are as fragile and inter-related as snowflakes spiraling down from the sky -- so that they clump together at precisely the point when they also melt. The characters search for meaning that is just as elusive -- in particular a collection of spiritually unsettling ceramics known as "chaldrons" -- and perhaps just as real. The fact that almost all of it has to do with an on-line reality game called YET ANOTHER WORLD is also no coincidence.
I'm getting off track. Maybe. It's hard to tell. The interweaving of a treacherous blizzard (how fitting), a ghostwriter (no, she's not an actual ghost...I don't think), and Marlon Brando adds to the cluttered, blue-smoke bluster of the book. It's the closest you can get to being high without injesting anything other than words. Unfortunately, just like most artificial highs, this book leaves behind blanks that you could've sworn were already filled in. By the end of the novel, New York appears to be cranking away under a perpetual snowfall. Just as streets and sidewalks are cleared for use, just as it's certain to where they lead, the faceless sky erases them away -- even just for a moment -- under a blanket of white, and all of the New Yorkers must trudge out and find their way again.
Chase, among all of them, narrates the tale (Lethem cheats several times, narrating a few chapters without Chase's help, a move that is puzzling and detracts from the book, even if it's also necessary) as if it were a handbook on how to live without knowing it. By the end, Chase, like most readers are bound to be, is aware that something larger (sinister?) is going on, but he hasn't the faintest idea what it is or how to deal with it. Mostly he does what everyone else does, and occupies his part of it. The final moment of the book I love, love, loved. The chaldrons mentioned earlier are prized, Chase says, because of their "thingliness," their purity of being. In the last paragraphs, only finally (and maybe, just like a pothead, only vaguely and sweetly) does Chase realize that even if life is confusing, disturbing, and beyond all human scope, it is at least touchable, embraceable, and frameable.
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.