By Jonathan Lethem
Faber £14.99, 480 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.99
Manhattan smells of chocolate, there’s a rogue tiger on the loose and it’s possible to buy a small pottery portal to the future on the internet. This is the curious world of Jonathan Lethem’s eighth novel, Chronic City. Chronic is, we learn, the name of an intense strain of marijuana, and the tone of the novel, its guileless gabbling confidence and wackiness, is rather like the rambling of a Chronic smoker.
Chase Insteadman is an actor, a former child star making brief forays into voice-over work and frequent ones into New York dinner party society. He meets a scrofulous, angry, shambling man called Perkus Tooth, a critic and cultural commentator who was once a member of Manhattan’s hipster heyday of street art and political protest. Delightfully, his grey sneakers are described as being “like mummified sponges glimpsed within a janitor’s bucket”. Around the same time, Chase runs into a bullish local politician called Richard Abneg and begins to explore the work of a contemporary urban artist called Laird Noteless. These cringe-inducing names, like the characters they belong to, are off-putting. We really would benefit if someone else were the main character instead of Insteadman; Abneg nullifies our interest; Noteless is not noteworthy.
We’re in the realm of the quirky contemporary city novel, in which seemingly random occurrences lead to small adventures which involve traversing the various social strata of the metropolis. In this case it is the well-excavated world of the rich, the cynical, the angry and ambitious. Dialogue is showered with references to books and films both real and invented, cultural in-jokes and petty ironies. All of this is entertaining enough, except that this is an eighth novel, not a gauche debut, and it feels like a leap backwards from successful books such as Motherless Brooklyn.
Chronic City, like all fashionable objects and people, tries too hard and yet, at the same time, doesn’t try hard enough. The absurdity never tickles the senses into delight; it merely irritates. A high-spirited scene in which Chase and his friends get high and bid on eBay for a clay artefact which they’re convinced has magical properties, an unfortunate night in a New York jail and the running joke of the escaped tiger all provide fun which goes nowhere.
Lethem is capable of great writing but here he seems to be scribbling on autopilot. As a result, sentence by sentence, the prose is fuzzy, careless and inert. It expresses unoriginal ideas with an excess of blithering words and half-formed metaphors. Abneg the bullish politico has experienced “a life’s arc of excruciating compromise. He painted himself as a specialist in sheltering sand-castle idealisms against the undertow of the city’s force of change, a force not so much cynical as tidally indifferent. Coughing up the lion’s share of what you’d sworn to protect, in days of privatising plunder, might be to keep from losing it all.”
Lethem’s characters mill jadedly around the novel like theatre-goers in a Broadway foyer. The satirisation of Manhattanites has been so longstanding and thorough that there is little left to say. The analysis has been made classily and devastatingly by Edith Wharton, affectionately and sensitively by Somerset Maugham. It’s been covered in Slaves of New York, The Devil Wears Prada and Bright Lights, Big City. Its best contemporary chronicler is Candace Bushnell, whose poisoned-dart sentences put Lethem’s meanderings to shame. His style is a soft arrow, tossed weakly towards an equally soft target: “Much hides behind what’s assumed about the East Side, even if what’s assumed is true. There are things beyond what’s assumed and true.”
Infected by an unfathomable ennui, neither Chase nor Richard nor Perkus have the energy to emerge as believable creations. It is genuinely incomprehensible when Chase declares clumsily about his new friend: “I already adored Perkus Tooth, and already sensed that it was his friendship I required to usher me into the strange next phase of my being. To unmoor me from the curious eddy into which I’d drifted.” Their oddball status, which provides the opportunity for some special observations about the peculiarities of city life, is squandered on dead plot ends and meaningless conversations. Ultimately they do not care very much about themselves, each other or the world at large. At the end of this long and chatty book, the reader feels a reciprocal lack of interest.
Bidisha is the author of ‘Venetian Masters’ (Summersdale)