Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chronic City

I’ve been waiting for Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City since I read an excerpt in The New Yorker last spring. It's finally out. I swooped on it at B&N. Lethem is probably the best American writer working today; his idiosyncratic characters, original plots, and witty, lyrical style never fail to amaze me. He's in control of his writing, which soars, dips, loops, and somehow remains smooth. At 45 he has already written two masterpieces, The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award), and some people never forgive him for that. Though most critics love Chronic City, some are surprised that each book is wildly different from the last. Lethem doesn’t write the same book twice, and Chronic City has little except rock music in common with his last two novels, You Don't Love Me Yet, a short novel about a rock band, and The Fortress of Solitude, a bildungsroman about Brooklyn, growing up, race, music, and gentrification.

In a weird kind of way, the narrative voice of Chronic City reminds me of that in The Great Gatsby, which in turn is related to Petronius’ Satyricon (Trimalchio’s dinner party). The plot isn't really similar - at least as far as I’ve read - and perhaps I'm making a Perkus Tooth connection (Perkus, one of the main characters in Chronic, sometimes makes haphazard connections).

The novel is narrated by Chase Insteadman, a wealthy former child star whose casual voice is soothing and tolerant (we meet him when he’s doing a voiceover at a DVD studio). He doesn’t work much, he’s a charming ornament at people’s dinner tables, his astronaut girlfriend is literally lost in space (their romance is famous), and he lives off residuals from his ‘80s sitcom. He spends most of his time with some remarkable characters, who live in a kind of alternative parallel city and quickly overshadow his own star. Perkus Tooth, a former pop culture critic for Rolling Stone, takes a shine to Chase when they meet at the Criterion Collection. It seems a strange friendship: Perkus seldom leaves his apartment and spends most of his time smoking dope (a kind called Chronic is his favorite), watching old films, listening to little-known CDs, and making paranoid connections between disparate aspects of the culture. Chase, a rather quiet socialite, is fascinated by him.

Perkus is such a '60s throwback that Chase's hilarious observations about his discovery of eBay as the result of an acupuncture session are typically over the top (Perkus has an epiphany about beauty as he gazes at a vase in a photo on the acupuncturist's wall and decides to buy one for himself):

“If anything epitomized Perkus’s curious disadvantages, his failure to find traction in the effective world, it was the state of his computing. Perkus was the type to be Web-delving on some sleekly effective Mac, I’d have thought. Instead his lumpy Dell looked ten years old, Cro-Magnon in computer years. He connected by his phone line, which he transferred by hand from his living-room Slimline, and which bumped him offline if anyone rang, but also, it seemed, intermittently and at random. Watching that Dell painstakingly assemble a page view, images smoothed pixel by pixel, was agony. Perkus was enchanted - he’d just discovered eBay, by way of the chaldron hunt.”

One of the year’s best. I'm saving some of it for tomorrow.

MORE ON TEACHING: It was much better. Everybody did the homework. Now I don’t have to theorize gloomily that the society has gone to hell and no one wants to learn anymore, minds boiled by TV. But I slowed down anyway and did an intensive nominative-accusative review and mildly suggested that learning the vocabulary was the most important thing. They agreed.

READING ON THE SONY: I love Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams and decided at random to download The Flirt. So far it’s surprisingly good.


Ellen said...

How old Vidal looks. His long-time partner died a few years ago and I suppose he is lonely (from the vantage point of this blog I see the photo of Vidal -- he is a very great essayist, or once was as he's too full of himself nowadays).

_Chronic City_ sounds like a richly-built up (i.e., 19th century type) Great Gatsby.


Mad Housewife said...

Yes, it's not a very becoming photo of Vidal. I could have gone with a younger one - but then I thought, well, this is how he looks now.

I don't know much about his personal life, but he is an excellent writer. I did read many of his essays in the New York Review of Books when I was growing up. He is a very good novelist.

Chronic City is so good!