Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

[Note: I "read" this as an audio book, if that matters to you.]

Isn't that an awesome book cover? That wasn't the cover to my audio book, but I saw this one and felt it was too cool to pass up.

In a New York City that's both the same and different from our own, a child actor turned gadfly meets up with an eccentric ex-writer who prides himself on seeing hidden meanings. While trying to cope with a life that's increasingly turning into a role he plays for the greater good, the child actor meets others within the circle of the writer's influence and is eventually forced to see that the world isn't the place he thought it was. In a city that accepts almost anything, will the actor fall into line--or fall out completely?

This was my first Lethem book, and it might not have been a great place to start. I admit I'm a bit of a bad reader, in that I don't always want to be questioning the status quo as I read, and this book features that theme in spades. Our rogue writer sees hidden meanings and conspiracies everywhere, and by the end, we're definitely meant to empathize with this perspective. It's one I don't share, so I found myself kinda competing against the theme of the book as things went on.

Lethem does a great job of using familiar icons to fuel these delusions, such as Marlon Brando, an iconic figure that could easily fuel ideas of a world we're not meant to know. He also plays with the idea of faked deaths, nihilistic art, bogus news, and other ideas that you hear if you talk to the right people. We all harbor a few of these, and Lethem gets them all out on display. The trouble is that for them to be believable, I needed a bit more to go on, and we don't get that. It's a problem that plagued the boo for me--Lethem throws out so many ideas, but very rarely do they get the follow-up needed to develop them.

There's also the curious decision to mix real names with fake ones. Brando and Maler are okay, but apparently Frank Oz and the Muppets was not. I can understand needing to change Second Life and Mayor Bloomberg, but I think I'd rather have seen it all be fictional, rather than a curious mix of names I knew and obvious attempts to hide names I knew. It jerked me in and out of the reality of the book's world too many times, as my mind drifted away from the plot and into "Hmm, why did Letham rename this character but not the other one?"

My other issue was in the choice of narrative perspectives. I just did not like Chase, the Child Actor, and found him to be boring at best and a real jerk at worst. He bumbles through this strange world, and only too late does he seem to get it. As a result, I don't know that I trust him to be telling me the reality of the situation. I guess that was Lethem's point, but I think I'd have liked the book if it had been in third person instead. Not only could we then get more from the livelier characters like Richard and Tooth, Chase's blandness wouldn't have been front and center at all times.

I can't say that I liked Chronic City all that much, even though I found some of the ideas intriguing. It's like Lethem tried a bit too hard to mesh it all together while being as clever as possible in the construction. The trouble is he was too clever by half. The point of the book--Who is to say what reality is?--gets lost in the muddled translation of Chase, who seems to prefer to think nothing is wrong until it's far too late to do anything about it. I have no problem with complex narrative structures as a rule. I just don't think Lethem did a very good job of it in service of his story.

Despite being disappointed in Chronic City, I did like Lethem as a writer, strange as that might sound. His narrative turns of phrase are almost poetic at times, and I liked his banter between characters. The interactions, from the formal to the informal, felt quite real. He also does a great job of painting background scenes, whether it's describing a character's appearance so we can know why they're losing credibility or giving you an idea of how each person should talk by their personality quirks. Those are the kind of things I look for in a book, and Lethem has them in spades. It will be interesting to see them play out in a different book. Hopefully, I'll like the whole, not just the sum of its parts, when I next read Lethem again.

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