Is It Too Soon to Be Callously Objective about Jonathan Lethem?

Is it Too Soon to be Callously Objective about Jonathan Lethem

Come October, everyone will be talking about Jonathan Lethem’s big novel, Chronic City. So we figured, why not review it now? Sure, we haven’t read it. But we’ve read a lot of other Lethem books; he’s been the subject of a few career-spanning articles; we’ve seen the specs for Chronic City, including the cover design; we’ve studied the synopsis, and we’ve read the excerpts in The New Yorker. Plenty of books have been reviewed on less. By giving you the skinny now, we’ll save you the trouble of reading a million other reviews this fall.

Yes, a million other reviews. Chronic City is going to be everywhere. It’s a fall release from a proven literary author at a major publishing house, so there’s a lot of confidence behind it. Lethem hasn’t worked on anything this big since Fortress of Solitude was released in 2003. He published two collections of short fiction, a book of essays, and a book about the New York Mets. He resurrected an old comic book superhero, wrote the introduction to some NYRB books, tried to steal Roberto Bolaño’s thunder, told New York magazine what he likes to eat, showed his face at every Brooklyn Book Festival we ever went to, and won a MacArthur Fellowship. But the only novel he’s published in that 6-year span was a slim volume about rock musicians in LA, and critics agreed it was “minor” Lethem. With Chronic City he is stepping out in a big way. It’s 480 pages, second only to Fortress of Solitude in terms of size. In terms of scope it’s probably the biggest novel Lethem has attempted.

Before we show you the flap copy, we’d like to observe that Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon have been accidentally collaborating over the past few years, with each of them on a mission to inject new life into literary fiction by drawing on aspects of genre fiction. They’re both undeniably brilliant. But it’s time to start wondering if their moment has passed. They’ve been critically acclaimed, they’ve arguably given us their one “big” book, and now they’re drifting apart. (Lethem started off with some real genre-benders, but he’s becoming more of an establishment guy. Chabon had more literary aspirations to begin with, but his last book, Gentlemen of the Road, was a pure lark.) We seem to have figured out what these guys are doing. The Lethem-Chabon era might be finished.

Okay, here’s the flap copy.

The acclaimed author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude returns with a roar with this gorgeous, searing portrayal of Manhattanites wrapped in their own delusions, desires, and lies.

Chase Insteadman, a handsome, inoffensive fixture on Manhattan’s social scene, lives off residuals earned as a child star on a beloved sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancée, Janice Trumbull, is trapped by a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station, from which she sends him rapturous and heartbreaking love letters. Like Janice, Chase is adrift, she in Earth’s stratosphere, he in a vague routine punctuated by Upper East Side dinner parties.

Into Chase’s cloistered city enters Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning. Perkus’s countercultural savvy and voracious paranoia draw Chase into another Manhattan, where questions of what is real, what is fake, and who is complicit take on a life-shattering urgency. Along with Oona Laszlo, a self-loathing ghostwriter, and Richard Abneg, a hero of the Tompkins Square Park riot now working as a fixer for the billionaire mayor, Chase and Perkus attempt to unearth the answers to several mysteries that seem to offer that rarest of artifacts on an island where everything can be bought: Truth.

Like Manhattan itself, Jonathan Lethem’s masterpiece is beautiful and tawdry, tragic and forgiving, devastating and antic, a stand-in for the whole world and a place utterly unique.

Reasons to Be Excited

— Lethem does well when he’s ambitious, and Chronic City is certainly ambitious. Also, publicity favors the bold.

— A recent excerpt in The New Yorker really sparkled when Lethem focused on a three-legged dog. The idea of a lover trapped in outer space is also pretty awesome.

Reasons to Be Discouraged

— Maybe it’s just the flap copy, but Chronic City sounds awfully indebted to Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon (Those characters’ names? Ugh!), Philip K. Dick, et al., to the exclusion of any singular imaginative contribution by Jonathan Lethem. His best work has felt utterly original, even when it’s not.

— How sick are we of the disaffected geek protagonist moving through a vaguely noir-ish world? If our generation venerates Lester Bangs or R. Crumb one more time, we’re going to wretch. Lethem’s best protagonists have been essentially sincere (Lionel Essrog) and/or innocent (Dylan Ebdus).

— Rock and roll is Lethem’s kryptonite. He can’t look away, and yet it kind of ruins him. His one real “miss” of a novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, was about music, and the parts of Fortress of Solitude that focused on rock criticism were its weakest links. The Lethem we love is much weirder than a “wall-eyed free-range pop critic.”

Anyway,  you’re going to hear a lot about Chronic City. Paul Auster will blurb it, or at least he will be name-dropped in someone else’s blurb. The New York Times will review it twice. Every magazine in America will devote at least 25 words to suggesting you tackle Chronic City as your big read of the fall. A well-known Brooklyn band (Vampire Weekend, anyone?) will serve as the opening act (and hipster magnet) at one of Lethem’s NYC readings.

But you, dear reader, you’ll suffer through the publicity campaign, hunkered down like a little Belgian boy tucked away in the attic in 1943. You’ll wait for the paperback of Chronic City, and you’ll buy it used for $7.50 at East Village Books, a year or two after the hype has died away. You’ll enjoy certain parts, and you’re remember why Jonathan Lethem is one of the most important writers of our generation. But by that time, you will have moved on to something better.


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