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Jonathan Lethem’s “Chronic City” Reads Like A Stoner Classic

Above: "Chronic City" author Jonathan Lethem. Photo by Fred Benenson used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Any good stoner flick – like say, "The Big Lebowski" – rambles ever onward, making up for lack of defined plot development with brilliantly realized characters. Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, "Chronic City" is, at its heart, a stoner flick and the success it manages is due to the rambling plot, propped up by the full-figured characters (with delicious, ridiculous names) and a richly imagined alternate-reality Manhattan devised by Lethem.

"Chronic City" is the latest novel from Jonathan Lethem, author of "Motherless Brooklyn" and "Fortress of Solitude."
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Above: "Chronic City" is the latest novel from Jonathan Lethem, author of "Motherless Brooklyn" and "Fortress of Solitude."

I wanted so badly to love this book. Lethem has long been one of my favorite authors. Two of his previous books ("Motherless Brooklyn" and "Fortress of Solitude") are among my theoretical “top ten” favorite books of all time, though I'll admit most of his other work has left me wanting more. "Chronic City" falls somewhere in between. Counterintuitively, it's only when the rambling, Seinfeldian, “stoner flick” element begins to flag and the author tries to wrap it all up, that the whole structure (and virtually non-existent plot) crumbles under its own weight.

In a way, Lethem's "Chronic City" is a much simpler New York City, without a 9/11 and with a “war-free” edition of The New York Times. When Chase Insteadman, former child actor, dilettante, and the fiancé of an astronaut trapped in space, meets the obsessive Perkus Tooth, counter-culture pop critic, pot connoisseur, & cheeseburger lover, the two form an unlikely friendship focused on drugs, abstract film (specifically a lost Kubrick film starring Marlon Brando and Muppet-like characters) and, well, maybe the pursuit of truth? Perkus becomes focused on the search for some sort of profoundly beautiful vase. Their friend Richard Abneg is forced out of his home as the public sides with the eagles nesting on his balcony. And professional ghost writer, Oona Laszlo, is working on the memoir of performance artist Laird Noteless, who just digs huge holes in the ground. You get the idea – the bulk of this is a book about nothing, like I said, almost Seinfeldian. And I loved every word.

It was only when the idea that this Manhattan is actually part of a massive virtual reality video game that Lethem lost me. This element – almost in the form of smoke-induced closing arguments - felt forced & rushed, as if Lethem was hurrying to draw some sort of profound conclusion from this bizarre world he had created, when in fact, he should have just let everything run its crazy, witty, esoteric course. Ah, maybe next time.

You can read more of Seth's reviews at The Book Catapult.

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