Chronic City

chronic cityJonathan Lethem is apparently moving out of New York City.  I read this somewhere (NYMag, maybe?) and they had a quote that stuck in my mind, about how this book very much seemed like a book written by someone ready to move out of the city.  It is – it is a love letter to the city but also a requiem for a life lived here.  It is a portrait of a city not-quite-this-one, where a giant tiger roams the streets causing havoc and a gray fog has descended over lower Manhattan (and, possibly, the WTC is still standing – though that’s somewhat unclear and perhaps the fog has something to do with that awful day).  The Chinese have planted mines around an orbiting space station – so clearly, our nations aren’t getting along.  There’s a distinct sense (one that grows throughout the book) that this is some strange simulacrum of New York – an iteration, scrapped in favor of the one we live in.

Where Money captured New York as it was and Super Sad True Love Story captured it as it may one day be… this captured a New York that could presently be.  On another Earth, perhaps – think Fringe or Sliders, multiple realities, etc.  It’s a New York that is so very close to ours that it feels just like ours – but then there are just a few things that separate it.  Just a few.  Yet it feels just as real as ours – even though it snows well into the summer and Chase Insteadman is in a relationship with an astronaut trapped high above the Earth.

I was continually surprised by the last third of the book.  I wasn’t expecting, even as the signs pointed me in that direction, what happened – I won’t spoil it as the reveals are very worthwhile.  In that sense, I was Chase.  This is one of those books where the reader engages in such a way that they seem to be living inside the book as well as outside of it.  Of course, that’s part of what Lethem seems to be poking at – the idea of worlds within worlds, of lives scripted and unscripted, of the conspiracy that binds all of us together whether we like it or not.

There are a few detractions from the book, keeping it from reaching that mythic chaldron-like 6.  Mainly, there’s a bit too much downtime in the early middle.  Chase and Perkus’ pot fugues are fun at first but there reaches a point where the book stagnates a bit.  Hence why it took me a bit longer than I thought to finish it.  But then, suddenly, things start to pick up – with a visit to the Mayor’s house for a ball one snowy evening, I think.  Then suddenly events begin to conspire in such a way that you start to doubt everything and there’s SOMETHING wrong in the universe but you can’t put your finger on it and then BAM the dominoes start to fall.

The book wraps up rather tidily – but there is a sense that something happened but that the moment has passed.  Things, though fine, will never be the same and there is that nostalgic longing in the last pages, similar to the way Nick Caraway thinks back on Jay Gatz.  Life moves on but incontrovertibly changed in fundamental ways that might not ever be fully understood.

Book: 5+ out of 5.  People always talk about a modern Gatsby (I have Gatz on the mind because the wonderful play/show/thing just opened at the Public and I’m so excited for it) – but this might be the closest thing I’ve seen to a book that captures the spirit in that same way.  Perkus Tooth, Oona Lazlo, the Hawkman, Richard, Janice, Chase, and the other assorteds who pop into and out of the story… they deserve to be thought of in the same way that thinking of Nick makes you think of Jay and Jordan and Daisy.


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