New York Chronic(le)

My beach reading book this summer has been Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. I’m not quite sure how I feel about the book. (Apparently the NY Times was not sure either, in the sense that the book got a rave in the Sunday Book Review, but a pan from the daily critic.) Set in Manhattan, the book has lovely writing and plenty of wit – sometimes clever, sometimes just silly  (instead of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, there are references to the non-existent books Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker, and Immaculate Rust by Sterling Wilson Hobo) – but I felt little emotional connection with the characters, partly because it was hard to see why those characters emotionally connected with each other. (The threads binding together the characters are equally implausible in another New York novel, this by Colum McCann, but I cared about them in a way that I do not in Lethem’s book.) Why should  former child TV star Chase Insteadman befriend  crazily free-associating former rock critic Perkus Tooth, with a political radical turned establishment man, and a prolific ghostwriter thrown into the mix as well? I suppose the commonality is that the first three of those characters are no longer what they once were, more so than the average aging human, and a ghostwriter is, by definition, not who she seems to be. But Tooth is mostly just obnoxious, and it is hard to see why Chase forms a relationship with him. All this stuff about people and things not being what they seem is fuel for the pot-driven (and eventually justified) paranoia that pervades the book. I was reminded of Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow, V, and The Crying of Lot 49 are all books about conspiracies, the secrets of which are all just out of reach.

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