Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Chronic City - Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City (Vintage Contemporaries)

I've been a pretty big fan of Lethem's since Fortress of Solitude, which is still considered his best if not his most popular. He is able to balance the smirky ironic cynicism of this age's writing with a much finer, old-world emotional gravity that makes his current, topical story feel much more timeless.

Essentially buddy story, Chronic City is at it's core about hipsters.  What do the arbiters of culture and taste, both low and high, do in their downtime?  It tells the story of a willfully bland ex-child actor and general layabout (the amazingly named Chase Insteadman) and how he falls in-friend with a hermetic, pot-smoking, burger chomping suit wearing counter-cultural journalist named Perkus Tooth.  They spend many pages wiling away time in Perkus's cramped apartment cooking up paranoid theories over percolated coffee and brand-named joints.

Which, somewhat plot-less as a pot-book might be, and believe me there are some people who really didn't care for the aimless drug-talk, it's a great ride if you're willing to take it with them.

I was.  

But beyond the upper-east-side hijinks,  the fantastic details, and some seriously great set-pieces, it's Lethem's writing that got me excited.

His ability to glide so smoothly from the realistic to the fantastic, from the trite to the emotionally charged is just amazing - all the more so because it seems so effortless. 

In one particular scene near the end of the novel, Chase is concerned with mounting an intervention for Perkus and it occurs to him that he needs to enlist the help of one character sooner rather than later since the character is "about to descend into the joyful solipsism of young parenthood", which, as those who know me can imagine, rang so true to me I had to put my glass down.  

Indeed, I'm the last person most of my friends would call to help them stage an intervention.  But then, maybe I always was.

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