Synopses & Reviews
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 and Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancee, 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.
"Signature Reviewed by Arthur Nersesian Jonathan Lethem's work has gone from postapocalyptic sci-fi to autobiographical magical realism. In Chronic City, he weaves these elements together, blending a number of actual recent events to create his own surreal urban landscape. The nearly mythological construction of the Second Avenue Subway spawns a strange destructive tiger that defies capture as it transforms the old city into a scary new one. A pair of eagles illegally squatting on an Upper East Side windowsill are summarily evicted. Best of all is the economic abyss that one once encountered above 125th Street. Here, Lethem has dropped a manmade fjord, a performance art chasm. At the heart of this city is former child star Chase Insteadman. Lately, he is better known as a celebrity fiancé to fatale femme astronaut Janice Strumbull, who is stuck in orbit because of Chinese satellite mines. Lately, though, his greater concern is his friend Perkus Tooth. Perkus is a pauper scholar, a slightly delusional Don Quixote character whose windmills are called chaldrons, imagined vases that bring inner peace. Somewhat like the tragic poet Delmore Schwartz who Saul Bellow fictionally eulogized (and Lethem acknowledges) in Humboldt's Gift, Tooth cuts with equal parts genius and madness. Though he never really rises above a plasterer of 'broadside' rants, he's a recognizable artifact of New York circa 1981. Between bong hits yes, for you potheads, Chronic is his favorite brand and downtown cultural references, conspiracy theories hiccup from Perkus's lips. A prevalent notion he has is that our reality is nothing more than a facsimile, a simulation of a hidden reality. Perkus's hyperactive brain only pauses when he lapses into his periodic 'ellipse' a kind of revelatory break. The only problem is his breaks are gradually increasing in frequency. Inasmuch as Perkus is a personification of the old New York and its highly endangered culture, Insteadman finds a moral duty to protect him. If Perkus is Insteadman's moral conscience, Richard Abneg, an opportunistic politico, is Insteadman's naked ambition. Though Abneg started as an East Village anarchist, through intellect and arrogance he rose to become a powerful aide to Mayor Arnaheim (a Giuliani-Bloomberg hybrid). Now he's dismantling the rent stabilization laws he once championed. Eventually, these two work together to save Perkus.Though Chronic City at times requires patience, it is a luxuriously stylized paean to Gotham City's great fountain of culture that is slowly drying up. Like the city itself, the book sways toward the maximal, but its prose shines like our skyline at sunset. The key to his city lies in the very notion of reality: Chase Insteadman's moniker implies that this former actor is now just a stand-in for a greater (perhaps former) reality. By the conclusion, I found myself wondering if Lethem hadn't originally written a shorter simulacra of Chronic City, when it was just an Acute City. From him I would expect no less.Arthur Nersesian is author of The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx (book two of the Five Books of Moses). His next novel, Mesopotamia, a thriller, is due out next year." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Lethem's most ambitious work to date, and his best since Motherless Brooklyn." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Funny and mystifying, eminently quotable, resolutely difficult, even heartbreaking, Chronic City demonstrates an imaginative breadth not quite of this world." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Chronic City may be less Lethem's attempt at a literary magnum opus than a ready-made cult item with its own subterranean wavelength." Los Angeles Times
"Lethem's claustrophobic vision of a world where everything is connected and nothing is as it seems proves both funny and frightening. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"Lethem does tend to favor...slightly more figurative, word-loving sort of writing over the terser, tighter prose of much of his other work....Chronic City
certainly continues Lethem's career-long project of rubbing the weird against the normal to see what sparks may fly." Darby M. Dixon III, Identity Theory
(read the entire Identity Theory review
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.
Reading Group Guide
"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