In terms of contemporary novels that not only dissect and explore the complex disjunctive sprawl of post-Modern America but also attempt to embody it in their form and language, Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City inhabits a position somewhere between the ludic Pynchonesque multiplicity of Infinite Jest and the more coherent but no less reaching Bellow-Roth-Updike-type tragicomedy The Corrections. More than either of these recent forebears, however, it's a novel exclusively and obsessively focussed on metropolitan society and in particular, the peculiarities and paradoxes of living and surviving in post- 9/11 New York.
It was Norman Mailer (one of the vast roll-call of cultural icons and celebrities who are name-checked in this book) who wrote "Reality is no longer realistic" and this could be described as perhaps Chronic City's major theme - where to locate a sense of reality or "the truth" in an environment dominated by politically-manipulated urban myth and viral rumour, complicit media spin, abounding conspiracy theories, a general atmosphere of social paranoia breeding a retreat into private worlds such as drug-use and virtual gaming.
If New York in the aftermath of 9/11 - itself an event obfuscated by competing narratives and tropes about what really occurred and why – is caught up in a self-bolstering process of reinvention, a quantitive easing of its citizens' anxieties through a media drip-feed of spurious, glamorised optimism, a novel attempting to encapsulate this slippery layering of unrealities will surely discard any sort of realist paradigm and instead foreground the fictional and indeed fantastical nature of its genre.
Jonathan Lethem, however, whose earlier cult novels often read like self-referential tweakings of different narrative-genres, has a subtler and even more fitting design in mind in Chronic City. On one level, in fact, it pursues the traditional moral trajectory of the 19th Century novel, a learning-curve from ignorance towards understanding for its main protagonist: elusive as this may often seem, Lethem still wants to tell a story, a New York myth of his own. What's so incisive about the plot-line of Chronic City - the passage of rites of its docile anti-hero Chase Insteadman, from complacent acceptance to a more disabused scepticism about what's going on around him - is that it mimics the reader's own growing realisation that what might have seemed at first a broadly 'believable' novel, subject to roughly the same narrative conventions
as the latest John Grisham, is veering more and more away from realism and more and more elaborately undoing its own artifices, imploding its own illusory city (like the fake “Potemkin villages” one character refers to).
It would be intriguing to trace other uses of what one might term “pseudo-realism” of this kind. Two fairly random examples spring to mind: the delirious impossibilities of Boris Vian’s L’Ecume de Jour, where an apparently normative, even clichéd story starts slyly wrongfooting the reader with features like a “pianocktail” (a keyboard which mixes you a cocktail according to which keys you play) and an ailing heroine who has a water-lily growing in her chest. Closer to home, early-to-mid Ian MacEwan often flirted with such ‘alienation effects’: The Child in Time has the disconcerting scene where a middle-aged politician reverts back into a tree-climbing, short-wearing schoolboy – there’s a kind of dream-logic to this, furthermore, as an image of male MPs' eternal puerility (what could be more naively public schoolboyish, for example, than Cameron’s ‘Big Society’?)
Another perspective on a “pseudo-realist” approach was provided by Tom MacCarthy recently when speaking of his heterodox yet Booker-nominated novel C: “the mainframe rhetorical mode for C is a kind of 19th-century realism – but that's a kind of Trojan horse.” For Lethem, as for MacCarthy, the “Trojan horse” of surface realism can work a subterfuge to carry their intellectually-ambitious novels through the gates of general readership before setting off more ambivalent, subversive reverberations once inside.
As previously noted, there is also something endearingly pre-Modern about Chronic City’s post-Modernist lineaments: the novelist it most reminded me of at first was Henry James, for the elegance and suave wit – couched in lingering, pensive syntax and often ornate diction – of its intricately-wrought prose. The glitzy Manhattan celebrity-circuit that Chase Insteadman inhabits (the consistently tongue-in-cheek names throughout the book seem signposts for “pseudo-realism”) is like a faded parody of the high society that so fascinated James, and Chase himself - a TV child-actor now “riding the exhaust of (his) former and vanishing celebrity” – seems the contemporary equivalent of the sybaritic, charming, moneyed faineant, except that, rather than inherited, his private income derives from royalties for re-runs of his popular sitcom.
If Chase is one kind of delusionary, the crux of the novel is his “life-altering” friendship with the dandyish Perkus Tooth, an ex-music critic and maverick polemicist who now exists in a cannabis- assisted, migraine-beleaguered “ellipsis” of paranoiac obsessions constructed from a bricolage of cultural trivia, ranging from Herzog, Cassevetes and Mailer to Marlon Brando’s appearance in the “Gnuppet (sic) Movie”.
Patrick Ness, in a misleading Guardian review, takes the novel’s title to imply that Chronic City is basically all about getting stoned, and that this renders it as “hazy” and “ambling” as a toker’s monologue. Firstly, the reference to weed is only one connotation of “chronic” – more subtly, Lethem seems also to be playing on the word’s precise, etymological sense –ie. pertaining to time(certainly one of the novel’s main concerns)– as well as the more current usage, to mean severe (as in chronic headache).
Secondly, Ness fails to register that cannabis carries as much thematic importance in the novel as drug-use of varying kinds does in both Infinite Jest and The Corrections – a preoccupation that links them. Like Franzen and Foster Wallace, Lethem clearly delineates the seminal influence of psychoactive befuddlement in contemporary America as an agent for distraction and attention-deficit ultimately abetting political quietism and cultural myopia – it is Franzen, perhaps, who goes furthest in showing the blurring and overlapping between
prescribed and proscribed drugs (and the devious role of the pharmaceutical industry in this) now prevalent.
Not at all, of course, that Chronic City (any more than the other two novels) is anti-drugs: Lethem is careful to dramatise both the positive and the less than beneficial effects of sustained spliff-smoking. For Chase, his stoned evenings with Perkus Tooth, the ghost-writer Oona Laszlo and their fellow in-denialist Richard Abneg – a former counter-culturalist who now works for the Mayor and has an aristocratic girlfriend but still likes to think of himself as a freewheelin’ dude (Jeff Bridges would make the perfect Abneg if they ever make a film of Chronic City) – make a compelling alternative to the vapid, gossipy functions he usually attends and grant him an insight into Tooth’s skewed, lateral perspectives on dominant culture, the weed loosening the preconceptions underlying the actor’s pampered indolence.
To what degree Chase ever goes along with Tooth’s chimerae, however, is always open to doubt and again in this he stands as a surrogate for the reader. How far out of touch with reality Tooth has smoked himself is attested to in the image of the “chaldron”, a kind of New Age ‘Grecian Urn’ which he sees as an uncanny portal to enlightenment (“Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth” perhaps) but which eventually turns out to be nothing more than a hologram invented by a software-programmer.
It’s significant that Tooth ends the novel weed-free, having undergone his own sort of negative enlightenment (in parallel with Chase’s later self-revelations) after his fixed-rent flat - along with his videos, books, CDs and PC - is destroyed by fire. Displaced from his paraphernalia and the obsessions that went with it, both physically and psychologically decluttered, Tooth finds a bathetic contentment in living simply in a borrowed apartment and looking after a three-legged dog. Could this really be a parody of the end of Coetzee’s dark, austere novel Disgrace, where the defeated protagonist ends up tending sick dogs? Given Lethem’s enthusiastic defence of plagiarism and recontextualisation (cf. his notorious Harpers and Queens piece: ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’, itself a cento of literary appropriations), we should hardly be surprised at this apparently irreverent remodelling of a heavy-going,Nobel Prize-winning source.
If Chase’s status as the novel’s main narrator is consistently unreliable and impaired, his authenticity is further undermined by attempts at philosophising stymied by his own shallowness:
“Often all language seems this way: a monstrous compendium of embedded histories I’m helpless to understand. I employ it the way a dog drives a car, without grasping how the car came to exist or what makes a combustion engine possible. That is, of course, if dogs drove cars. They don’t. Yet I go around forming sentences.”
His window-view of a spire and its birds seems the one constant in an urban landscape which balloons further and further into the surreal. An escaped tiger is said to prowl the streets (or is this just a cover-story for a marauding urban-demolition project?), nesting eagles have supplanted Richard Abneg from his flat and the snowstorms never relent. A giant chasm on some wasteland (no doubt a reference to Ground Zero) turns out to be an art installation. When a hefty novel called Obstinate Dust is dropped into the gulf, an oblique tribute to David Foster
Wallace (who died while Lethem was writing the novel) is registered, one more gratuitous folly in a cultural landscape littered with them.
Perhaps Lethem’s deepest achievement in Chronic City is to orchestrate a poignant and resonant denouement for Chase and his lover Oona out of this outlandish backdrop. Chase’s ultimate disenchantment, gained through a last stroke of metafictive retrospect that forces the reader to reflect back and revaluate much of what has gone before, leaves a powerful sense of the importance of seeing through the fictions that surround us - even as this outstanding novel itself argues for the equal and continuing importance of literary fictions.