Friday, February 11, 2011

Chronic City

For the past couple of weeks I've been carrying around Chronic City (2009) by Jonathan Lethem. Ever since finishing it yesterday afternoon, I've been carrying it around still, trying to make sense of it all, trying to figure out if I even like it or not. I think it's only gotten heavier since finishing.

I suppose I do like it, there are plenty of books I haven't finished because they didn't hold my interest. I liked his earlier novel, Fortress of Solitude (2003), and loathed another, the name of which I can't even remember I disliked it so much (he's written many others, try one of them before reading the one I can't remember).

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
I'm realizing that my uncertainty about Chronic City isn't new, that I didn't just close the book and then attempt to consider its worth, but that I've read it entirely in that state of confusion. I kept trying to figure out what it's about, because certainly the characters, their relationship with each other and the places they inhabit must be about more than just what Lethem has put on the page. He's an enigmatic writer and I questioned throughout whether I'm smart enough for his literary enigmas.

It's the story of Chase Insteadman, a former child star living off royalties and making his way through Manhattan society and simple afternoons spent in diners and staring out of his bedroom window at a flock of birds that habitually buzzes a church steeple a few blocks away. He befriends, through happenstance or by design (ah, the conspiracies abound in the City of Chronic), Perkus Tooth, a former rock critic and all-around pop culture savant. Through their world, spent mostly in Perkus's cramped, darkened apartment listening to obscure cassette tapes, watching Marlon Brando movies and smoking dope, traipse Oona Laszlo, Richard Abneg and Georgina Hawkmanaji. An inordinate amount of time was spent by me trying to figure out what these names could mean, whether metaphors or anagrams (this book itself was borrowed from a friend - Mitch Major - someone who could have lent his own name to a Lethem character).

In and out of the daily lives of this group walks a giant tiger (or is it?), a lost love orbiting the planet (or is she?), chaldrons ( or ... you get the idea ...), Gnuppets, the mayor and the topic of rent control and eminent domain, virtual worlds and a three-legged dog.

He's a deep writer, Lethem. The prose is layered in adjectives and metaphors. He may have used all of the words of description Hemingway once shaved from his own paragraphs. Perhaps those words were in the suitcase, folded like so much laundry, that Hadley Hemingway lost at the train station and have remained lost until recovered by Lethem.

Hemingway's lost suitcase full of manuscripts is one of my sole, semi-obscure pop culture reference, yet Lethem is a master at the dropped name, the long-forgotten novel or album, the illicit relationship whether fact or implied, and I'm sure I only recognized (or at least understood) a fraction of them.

It is this confusion by me as a reader that would normally leave me with a quarter finished book place back on the shelf, dismissing the writer as too pretentious,  too intent on trying to impress rather than entertain the reader. But Lethem is good enough and the stories in Chronic City are compelling enough to keep me reading.

I also read this book while chest deep into my own novel and when I would pick up Chronic, it was with an eye toward structure, how Lethem made it from point A to point B, or from point C back to A via B. It's a tedious way to read a book, so I admit that part of the problem I had with it may have been my own doing, but so be it. I feel that, along with being entertained, if not somewhat baffled, I may have just learned a thing or two.

So, there you have it. I like this novel and it only took me two weeks and one day to figure it out. Better late than never.

*I just looked it up and the name of the Lethem novel I dislike so much is You Don't Love Me Yet (2007).