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44-Jan-Feb-2010
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A-Chronic CityJonathan Lethem, a 2005 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, is the author of nearly a dozen genre-bending novels and collections of short fiction, including As She Climbed Across the Table (1997); The Fortress of Solitude (2004); Gun, with Occasional Music (1994); and Motherless Brooklyn (1999). Chronic City, a mash-up of cultural criticism and near-future mayhem, is pure Lethem.

The Story: Handsome and inoffensive, Chase Insteadman lives well off his royalties and fame as a child television star. Still, he's at loose ends: his fiancée, astronaut Janice Trumbull, is trapped aboard the International Space Station with little hope of return, and his life revolves around a series of meaningless interactions with uninteresting people on Manhattan's Upper East Side. When subversive pop critic Perkus Tooth invades Chase's insular world, dredging up a similarly odd cast of characters (each with his own suitably Dickensian name), their search for the answers to the city's mysteries becomes a life-changing quest for Chase.
Doubleday. 467 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780385518635

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Funny and mystifying, eminently quotable, resolutely difficult, even heartbreaking, Chronic City demonstrates an imaginative breadth not quite of this world." Steven Hayward

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Lethem's New York is not the city of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, but more like T. S. Eliot's ‘unreal city' of ‘The Waste Land,' an intended construct where things like the devastation of the World Trade Center are replaced by a ‘grey fog' that perpetually shrouds lower Manhattan. By the end, Lethem pulls everything together in a stunning critique of our perceptions of reality and our preconceptions of the function of literature." David Hellman

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, Chronic City has to leave Perkus' sphere of influence, and when Lethem punctures this pot-infused bubble of cultural detritus and conspiracy theory, he seriously harshes the novel's mellow. ... Chronic City may be less Lethem's attempt at a literary magnum opus than a ready-made cult item with its own subterranean wavelength." Akiva Gottlieb

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"While the sum of Chronic City is less than its parts, the quality of Lethem's prose and the exuberance of his imagination are reasons enough to read it. ... [The novel] lacks the streamlined beauty of Girl in Landscape or the antic acrobatics of Motherless Brooklyn." Ariel Gonzalez

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"With his parallel Manhattan to play in, Lethem ambles comfortably into satire and creates some truly awesome, surreal jokes. ... Lethem makes us hope for Chase, not just that he'll find answers but that he'll be saved from indolent luxury." Sam Thielman

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[The novel] is impressively observant in its detail and scourging in its mocking satire. ... Lethem's depiction of New York as grand allegory, besides pretentious, is rather a waste of its living vitality." Richard Eder

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Jonathan Lethem's brilliant, bloated new novel about the hollowness of modern life should delight his devoted fans--and put them on the defensive. ... The payoff for all this work, a Twilight Zone revelation squeezed into the final 20 pages, is a thin reward for such sophisticated but prolonged antics." Ron Charles

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Though [Chronic City] has passages of dancing wit and keen observation, it is, over all, a strangely detached and lackadaisical production that sorely tries the reader's patience. ... In the end the reader simply doesn't care: these creatures inhabit neither a real flesh-and-blood Manhattan nor a persuasive fictional realm, and they're so clearly plasticky puppets moved hither and thither by Mr. Lethem's random whims that it's of no concern to us what happens to them in this lame and unsatisfying novel." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Given the offbeat touches in his subject matter--one need look no further than the homicidal, bioengineered kangaroo stalking the author's protagonist in his debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music--Jonathan Lethem is bound to engender both unbridled admiration from existing fans and more than a few raised eyebrows from critics and new readers. Reviews of Chronic City vary wildly, though Lethem's trademark sense of humor and flights of fancy work here, even when the story and its characters lose steam in some of the more ponderous, "insider" passages and pop-culture references. That Lethem's latest effort elicits so many--and such differing--views, however, suggests his importance as an innovator who constantly expands the boundaries of literary fiction. Here's hoping there's better balance in his next novel.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. When do you think the action of the novel occurs? Is there a reason the time was left vague? Is this the "real" New York City?

2. At what point did you begin to suspect that Chase Insteadman was living a fiction? At what point in their story do you think Perkus Tooth understood that Chase had been deceived about his role?

3. Can you accept that Oona Laszlo is responsible for the letters attributed to Janice Trumbull? Is it possible, as a writer, to create another human being more generous, large-hearted, and responsive than yourself?

4. What is the meaning of the wild animals that intrude on the lives of these Manhattanites -- the eagles, the tiger? Do they have anything to do with the weather?

5. Have you ever felt that the place where you lived or grew up was being turned into a 'simulacrum' of itself?

6. Have you ever tried to care for someone impossible? Are you now? Does Perkus Tooth remind you of anyone in your own life, or did you find Chase's decision to befriend him misguided?

7. At different points in CHRONIC CITY Perkus Tooth seems to attempt to sustain himself completely on culture and language, then, alternately, to try to leave culture and language entirely behind and live a "pure" life. Do you think either approach is possible?

8. The author's working title for CHRONIC CITY was "MANHATTAN". The Woody Allen film by that name was often criticized for depicting a Manhattan consisting only of the white upper middle class. Is CHRONIC CITY self-aware about the limitations of its characters? Does Chase Insteadman's response to the black kids he meets near the Urban Fjord, or to the black man in the jail cell imply another version of Manhattan creeping into view?

9. What does the gray fog hide?

10. Was Chase unfair to Oona? Should he give her another chance?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Doubleday. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.