Chronic City

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

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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.

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.

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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.

No doubt Lethem attends similar gatherings. This insider novel is sure to be a cause célèbre as Manhattan trendinistas fall all over one another trying to match “Chronic” characters Tooth, neurasthenic ghostwriter Oona Laszlo, and the vividly depicted heiress Georgina Hawkmanaji with exemplars of that island’s actual upper crust. This is a novel of talk, and even if the plot – its leitmotif a giant tiger wrecking neighborhoods (shades of the “gray fog” of 9/11) – rambles, the conversation can be scintillating.

“Chronic City” mulls fiction versus reality. Is that outsized tiger roaming those dense streets a real, fearsome animal? Is it a machine burrowing underground to create quakes swallowing up Tooth’s neighborhood and forcing the frail man into the Friendreth Canine Apartments, a building for homeless dogs? Or is it a political device intended to clear space for the Second Avenue Subway line and shore up the mayor’s power?

Like the tiger, Insteadman has several dimensions. Turns out he has income other than those residuals; He is on the payroll of the Manhattan Reification Society, earning money by continuing, one might say, to act.

Known for his command of language, Lethem has not always been as authoritative with character. Here, the two sync, though only toward the end, as Insteadman and Tooth finally realize how much they care for each other.

If Lethem had focused on relationships of depth, the book would have been stronger. But he seems to lack attention span and is prone to tangents, albeit fascinating ones: The book often touches on alternate reality, referencing the cultish “virtual universe” Second Life through Yet Another World, the computer creation of Biller, Tooth’s homeless buddy. “Chronic City” bubbles with connotation and reference: Laird Noteless is a conceptual artist who builds urban fjords, similar to the way Christo wraps large areas in bunting. Grinspoon & Hale evoke Simon & Garfunkel.

Would that Lethem had lavished as much attention on people as on Ava, the three-legged pit bull that becomes Tooth’s best friend.

“When she exhausted herself trailing him in this manner from room to room she’d sometimes charmingly sag against a wall or chair. More often she leaned against Perkus, or plopped her muzzle across his thigh if he sat. Her mouth closed then, as it rarely did otherwise, and Perkus could admire the pale-brown of her liverish lips, the pinker brown of her nose and the raw pale pink beneath her scant, stiff whiskers – the same color as her eyelids and the interior of her ears and her scar, and the flesh beneath the transparent pistachio-shells of her nails.”

At its best, “Chronic City” conjures a dazzling, provocative city of secret life in which even pit bulls are adorable. But all too often, Lethem’s ambition and talent outstrip his focus.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

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