Unreal City

Jonathan Lethem has a habit of choosing titles that are hard to remember even after you’ve read the book.  There’s You Don’t Love Me Yet,  the one about the one-hit-wonder LA band, and Girl in Landscape, the sci-fi novel about a telepathic space colonist (who would know?).  Chronic City too is a rather slippery title: the “Chronic” seems to refer to a brand of marijuana favored by the characters, or to one character’s chronic case of hiccups.  The City is Manhattan, a slightly alternate-universe Manhattan that might reasonably be called the most important personage in the book (yes, a novel all about Manhattan–that hasn’t been done before).

Our narrator is Chase Insteadman, a washed-up actor whose fiancee is apparently an astronaut stranded in space and whose main occupation is serving as admirer/minder to Perkus Tooth, a washed-up cultural critic who spends his time smoking amazing amonts of pot and spinning theories about some of our most boring cultural icons (Mailer, Brando, the Rolling Stones).  There’s also Richard Abneg, one-time activist now co-opted by the authorities, whose job is either to combat or do PR for a giant escaped tiger who has been ravaging the East Side for months, and Oona Laszlo, ghostwriter currently at work on the memoir of a po-mo sculptor whose works (such as “Urban Fjord”) are just giant chasms.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic; nobody ever leaves Manhattan, and indeed much of the the could be a sitcom with just two sets (apartment, burger joint), a sort of highbrow Seinfeld where the gang meets up to exchange witticisms (“I don’t care what anybody says, Ballard is just Baudrillard without the “udri”) and argue about trivia.  Their rants are often entertaining in a stoner-fugue way, and in general Lethem keeps us from getting too exasperated through his wit and verbal dexterity.  A good example is when Chase sees Richard at a society party retelling the story of an epiphany at the public bathrooms next to Stonehenge:

”  these floor-length urinals, all arranged in somber rows, and
everybody pissing in silence, the Stonehenge restroom was a more holy scene than Stonehenge by far, I’m telling you.”
[…]  Was Richard some bore who told this stor y everywhere?  Perhaps ‘Stonehenge restroom’  was a trigger phrase, a code Richard Abneg had to let drop each time he mingled in the
world of wealth and privilege, until the time he heard the reply come back to him, the shrouded reply that would foment revolution.

Lethem, as you can see, is a smart and stylish writer, and although the book’s main obsession, the idea that what we call reality is largely (entirely?) a fiction of our own creation, is a bit tired by now (from Borges to The Truman Show to Paul Auster…) he handles it with sophistication.  Everywhere there are little signs of slippage and disjunction, Perkus’ hiccups, the skips that make certain songs unplayable on his Rolling Stones records, the holes left by the ‘tiger’ and the voids of the sculptor Laird Noteless.  Since the characters are genuinely somewhat loopy, it is hard to tell which of their suspicions are founded in something other than a few tokes of Chronic.

I must say, though, that the ultimate unfolding of the story left me feeling empty–it seemed to me psychologically far-fetched, or if psychologically plausible, to carry even further the soullessness of his people.  Chase in particular, like the heroine of You Don’t Love Me Yet, is something of a vapid pretty-boy (well, she was a girl, but you get the idea).  I imagine that having people want to jump your bones all the time is lots of fun, but it doesn’t necessary make for an engaging personality.   And the fact that his relationships with clothed people tend to be vague and transitory has, to my mind, a lot more to do with his feeling that the world (or Manhattan, which is the same thing to him) might be fake than any universal metaphysics.

This seems to me a typical pattern especially in American stories of epistemological vertigo: the character who discovers that ‘our’ reality is a fiction is invariably someone with no family and no real friends, and the moral I draw from this is that it’s a really bad idea to alienate everyone you ever loved so badly that the only reality check left to you is the hollow echo inside your own head.

And one other thing.  Could we just have a moratorium on the provincial habit of dropping New York City  place-names as though everybody were supposed to know them?  Even when I do know them, I find it annoying to have the writer assume that just because some drinking fountain or laundromat is in NYC it’s a monument of world culture.

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