'Chronic City': Jonathan Lethem's ode to the pleasures of language and pop culture
Jonathan Lethem's "Chronic City" is a nearly plotless novel obsessed with pop culture and possibly headed for cult status. Lethem will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at the Sunset Tavern in the Ballard neighborhood in an appearance sponsored by Seattle's University Book Store.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of "Chronic City" will discuss his book with Paul Constant, book editor at The Stranger, at 7 p.m. Monday at the Sunset Tavern, 5433 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle. Tickets are free with the purchase of "Chronic City" from University Book Store or at the event; otherwise tickets are $5 (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).
by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 432 pp., $26.95
Jonathan Lethem's first novel, "Gun, with Occasional Music," published in 1994, was a weird blend of science fiction, hard-boiled detective and literary fiction. "Genre-bending" is how it was often described. I was a fan but didn't expect Lethem to find a wide audience. I was wrong about that.
"Motherless Brooklyn" won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999, and "Fortress of Solitude" was a New York Times best-seller in 2003. "Chronic City" is his oddest, most plotless book yet, and I have a feeling it will be his top-seller, though it seems more like a novel composed for cult status.
Lethem's two lead characters are named Chase Insteadman and Perkus Tooth, so the reader immediately knows reality isn't going to weigh this novel down. Mr. Tooth is an addled pot-smoking pop critic who is on a hunt for ... well, something.
Describing Mr. Tooth, Mr. Insteadman says, "He was sort of, I don't know, Hunter Thompson-meets-Pauline Kael, for about five minutes."
Mr. Insteadman is a celebrity, a former child star who is married to an astronaut who is trapped in orbit on a space station, which adds to Insteadman's fame quotient. Insteadman becomes obsessed with Tooth, who is obsessed with many things.
"Any time I write a character who is obsessive about cultural facts and identifying with them dangerously much, that's about myself," Lethem has said.
Most characters in this book are obsessive about cultural facts, especially Tooth and Insteadman, and so it seems that Lethem is further proof of F. Scott Fitzgerald's theory that every character is a reflection of some personality facet of the author.
If you are a fan of pop culture, you likely will love this book. On every page there are references to movies, songs, celebrities, theories, works of art — some real, some fictional, some obvious, some subtle, some attributed, some unattributed. One of my favorites was when Insteadman said, "I'd merely shown I'd grokked," using a word from Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," a word that did not exist before Heinlein's book and can now be found in Merriam-Webster online.
By this point of the review I should have summarized Lethem's plot, but there is not much to say. You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album. Insteadman and Tooth are on a quest of sorts, pursuing urban myths and mysteries, and I did find myself mildly curious about where this would lead, but the pleasures of this book are more about observations, moments and riffs.
Lethem even makes a bout with the flu fun. "To feel coconut-sweet chicken and tomato broth flood your ravaged pipes as succor, the soup replacing lost spinal fluids directly with each mouthful. The distance between bathroom and couch, then back to huddle within womb of mattress and duvet, becomes an epic slog of triumphs. Comfortably arranging for oneself a clean glass of water, a paperback or magazine, and a television remote, a magician's feat."
I loved this book but cannot fully justify why. I even felt like I was duped into overlooking the book's shortcomings, perhaps by Lethem's sneaky language and pop-culture touchstones, but as Insteadman said, "To be unduped was not to live."
Mark Lindquist is the Pierce County prosecutor. His most recent novel was "The King of Methlehem."