Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Chronic City

Chronic City Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this ten years ago when it came out, and I declared it then the best novel I’d read that decade. I’ve just re-read it as part of teaching it for a class and, in a changed context with enough time having past for it no longer to be the flavor of the month, I want to say that it holds up. I love Lethem. I think he’s our best working novelist. (At least he has a co-share of that title alongside Marilynne Robinson). And I think this is still his masterpiece.

There are many things I might say about the novel, but what lingers at the moment is the idea that this is a post-modernist Great Gatsby, and it’s the most successful grappling with the allure of the city of the last quarter century (at least that I know of).

To flesh that idea out, consider that Perkus Tooth is the anti-Gatsby. If Gatsby sensed ahead of almost everyone else the power of the city to let us reinvent ourselves, Tooth is the last holdout in the belief of the real. Gatsby’s dream is old news in 21st century Manhattan; everyone goes to the city to shed a past and embrace an impossible ethereal dream. Tooth is a knight of the real. Even if he is more Quixote than Lancelot, there is still something noble in his insistence on seeing through the surface of things to the conspiracy below and to the inexpressible reality below even that conspiracy.

Consider as well that Chase is a postmodern variant of Nick, someone who, while he cannot fully apprehend the hero’s vision, appreciates the battle in service of it. Like Nick, Chase is more at home in the world of the city (even though Chase himself is Gatsby-like in having left behind a Midwestern childhood and assumed a new identity through the intercession of moneyed interests). And, like Nick, Chase cannot see – or refuses to see – much of the machinery in which he finds himself caught.

Sharing it with students in a couple different classes, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who don’t like this, who find it a circular game of slippery identities around characters who ultimately have no real sense of self. When I squint, I do see what they’re saying. These characters do come close to being cartoons, and they are caught in a world that, with its make-believe elements, seems impoverished next to the rich world of the real.

When I unsquint, though, when I read this again as it comes open-eyed in my experience of it, I have to challenge those ideas. Yes, these characters border the artificial, but they do so because the city – the world Lethem plumbs, a world I sometimes experience myself – is saturated in artificiality itself. If the postmodern condition rests on the irony that we begin to recognize our world is simply a kaleidoscope of signifiers that fall into new patterns every time we adjust the knob, then this novel begins with that irony.

Unlike most postmodern fiction I know, however, this refuses to capitulate to that irony or, as in the case of David Foster Wallace, to wallow in it. This is a novel that, accepting a world with the precondition that language has deconstructed around us, fights all the same toward something that feels like meaning. Lethem’s Manhattan is too far gone in the way of the broken signifier for anything like real repair to feel legitimate, but, in Perkus, he creates someone who rages against the dying of the lie – someone who believes there is truth in a world that gives no evidence there can be. (The only writer I’ve ever seen to strike a similar blow is Don DeLillo at his best in Underworld and, to a degree, in Mao II.)

Chase can only “chase” him so far, but therein lies the real and authentic drama of this postmodern world. This novel accepts all the irony (and with it, the unstated despair) of the postmodern world, but then it scrabbles back toward something lost and ineffable, some green light beckoning across a grey fog that almost, but not quite, obscures everything.

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