I’ve been to New York many times before actually going there. I’ve seen it through Bartleby’s nihilist eyes, from Patrick Bateman’s grotesque point of view, or in a jazz and drug infused frenzy with the Beat writers, through Woody Allen’s paranoid hipster glasses, Gatsby’s love sick eyes and from the deck of the immigrant ship coming to the New World, the big cliche entrance. After having walked up and down that island for real though, I now have it all mapped out in my mind, so reading Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem allowed me to navigate the streets of his imaginary New York and connect it to the real one. A giant tiger is loose in the city roaming its underground tunnels and causing buildings to collapse; a dense fog is permanently looming over the financial district and the New York Times has a separate “war-free” version. These are some of the elements of magic-realism in the novel, but they paradoxically work to make this imaginary version of the city even closer to the real, expressing the violence and beauty with which things become out-dated and replaced there, the very strange sense that one is completely isolated from world conflicts and somehow at their core, making veiled references to the city being cleaned up and “smoke free”, or to 9/11. I remember reading about the famous Washington Square Park as being the hang-out place for junkies and the like in the 70s. Standing as one example of the city’s transformation, the place is completely sanitized and baby-walking proof nowadays.
A funny and extremely clever, although at times annoyingly geeky, male bonding story, the novel centers on a group of friends, a former child star living out of his long gone glory, a former self hating rock critic and artist without an oeuvre and a former squatter now turned square and working for the mayor. There’s a set of remarkable, though secondary, female characters and one of them is my favorite: Janice Trumbull, an astronaut stranded out in space with a bunch of Russian cosmonauts, who writes lovely letters to her sitcom actor flame. The plot is too complicated and weird to bother summarizing it and it is probably the great weakness of the novel that keeps some pretty obvious revelations to the end, which are cheap and unnecessary. Its strength however, lies in the characters, who are odd, but relatively lovable, particularly Perkus Tooth, the self hating rock critic that is to me the embodiment of the former glory of New York, versed in popular culture, avant-garde, weird and most of all untied by power-structures. In a way, the story is that of the death of Perkus Tooth and of New York as it once was (counter-cultural, paranoid, hip) and its gradual co-option by the square power-structure.
It was very strange to read a book that brings to mind the postmodern generation, there’s something pynchonesque about it, the whole cultural paranoia, the sense of humor and the pace of the plot, the fable-like character names and their almost cardboard personalities. There’s also a bit of DeLillo and Coupland, but other than that it’s mostly its own thing. There’s so much beauty in it, but there’s also too much stuff that is unnecessary. Its nostalgia for the hipness of former New York(s) struck me as a bit childish and it might so be that the avant-garde no longer has its home there, in the now sanitized, smoke-free avenues. But only time will tell. The avant-garde is sneaky that way, it has kept being pronounced dead, only to reappear again. For that matter, I didn’t think a novel so “late 20th century” as this one could still captivate me, but, well, it did…
And an excerpt from the novel, from the time of Perkus Tooth’s demise, when he is left homeless by a tiger attack and forced to take refuge in an apartment building, literally, for dogs.