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Chronic City

Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s ambition and talent outstrip his focus in this provocative tale of urban life.

By Carlo Wolff / October 24, 2009



Jonathan Lethem concocts an often intoxicating but occasionally irritating fable of intellectual life in the Manhattan of the near future in Chronic City, his latest exploration of urban life. His language, as is often the case, is ravishing, but his painstaking characterization doesn’t lead to figures worth caring about.

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Despite surface sheen and an intermittently high entertainment quotient, “Chronic City” feels flaccid. While better than Lethem’s overly schematic “The Fortress of Solitude,” it lacks the zing of his “Motherless Brooklyn,” the 1999 novel for which Lethem won the National Book Critics Circle award.

“Chronic City” (so many puns, so much time to ponder them) is the name of a strain of marijuana. Lethem’s malleable hero, Chase Insteadman (connotations, anyone?), shares with critic manqué Perkus Tooth and Richard Abneg (a pun lurks here, too), a flamboyant fixer for Mayor Jules Arnheim (modeled on Mike Bloomberg). Twitchy dealer Foster Watt, a dependable Tooth connection, purveys “Chronic” as one of his several “brands.” Lethem’s characters spend much time smoking dope and contemplating, but not progressing in, their relationships.

While Tooth is the heart of this book, Insteadman is the glue. He lives on residuals from his role as a child star on the sitcom “Martyr & Pesty,” pines for teenage sweetheart Janice Trumbull (an astronaut lost in space), and attends parties along with the likes of Lou Reed, Steve Martin, and David Blaine. Reputation rather than feeling seems to be the chief concern of Lethem’s characters. A high social profile is the key aspiration.

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