Where new writing finds its voice

Chronic City

Anna Goodall

Jonathan Lethem
Faber, 2009

Chronic City is a New York narrative that seems to be referencing its way straight to clever metafiction but can’t resist stirring love, bildungs-roman, and good storytelling into the pot (or should I say the weed?). The story is set against, and is, the hidden warren-like buildings and unpredictable streets of Lethem’s Manhattan, with its symbols and streaks of communal reference, set against the unreliable hoarded perspective of the individual; tracing out alternative and simultaneous strands of consciousness on to its unsteady grid.

The central protagonist, Chase Insteadman, is an apparently vacuous, actively vicarious, former child TV star who doesn’t do much anymore, but is comfortably well off and a household name, calmly required to be calm and charming at Manhattan dinner parties and functions. What’s more, his astronaut fiancée, Janice Trumbull, is trapped orbiting in space, only able to communicate via letters printed in the New York Times. Their story has entranced and bewitched the city in its poignant sadness, though Chase admits, to the reader at least, that he has ‘trouble clearly recalling Janice’.

Perkus Tooth – the connecting character, a cultural critic turned oblique recluse, Brandon obsessive, film buff, and fragmentary pop culture geek – notes during one of his early encounters with Chase: ‘They watch you like you’re still on television.’ And later tells him that ‘[Y]ou’re the perfect avatar of the city’s unreality.’ 

The city, and the protagonists’ perception of it, is full of gaps, blanks, confusions and slippages, from celebrated artist Laird Noteless’s manmade city chasms and Perkus’s cluster headaches, to the huge amount of weed smoked throughout – especially a strong variety called ‘Chronic’. These blanks create a sense of permanent anxiety and uncertainty in the city, each character afraid to venture beyond safely mapped zones of their reality.

Not only that, there is a tiger roaming the city, inexplicably causing death and destruction, a grey fog hanging over the financial district, and the city is in a permanent winter.

Other characters soon emerge to join Perkus and Chase: Oona Laszlo, a ghostwriter; Richard Abneg, a bigwig working for the city’s mysterious and all-powerful Mayor Arnheim, and the wealthy woman Abneg seduces in a richly satirical episode, Georgina Hawkmanaji.

An obscure film called The City is a Maze is referenced on page one, and a virtual reality computer game and ‘unwrecking’ objects called chaldrons also play their part. It’s hard keeping track of a convincing version of reality at the best of times, but in Lethem’s Manhattan it’s near-impossible.

So far so normal for a New-York novel written by someone very clever, but this novel is much more. Its humour, its drawing of character and relationships sets it apart from its brethren; there is something distinctly European in Lethem’s deft and delicate use of language for story’s sake, and his love of the novel as a form.

Just as the city itself clearly understands the need for story and credible protagonists, so Lethem does, instinctively and irresistibly. All his characters are brilliant creations and never rendered impotent by the novel’s fragmentary thrust, even though their signpost-like names and occupations suggest they should be.

What hope have you for being interested in a relationship between Oona Laszlo, mysterious ghostwriter, and a man named Chase Insteadman? Yet the way their relationship is described and the way they fall in love is touchingly drawn, and rendered lightly ridiculous because it is convincing within the constructs of Chronic City.

The first time Chase sees Oona, you know he’s in trouble: ‘She wore black […] making her like a marker scribble […] Oona’s mouth alone confessed female ripeness, seeming to stand for secret curves unrevealed by her silhouette.’

The first time they kiss: ‘Her gaze zipped shyly from the coursing street to my damp collar and tie, anywhere but to meet mine. Her tiny hand, sharp and mouselike, slid between my jacket and shirt at my ribs.’ 

But all the time they are constructed by the city’s overriding narrative: ‘[S]oon enough we found a doorway, just as Oona had scripted for us. I suppose she knew the weather forecast. Brass nameplates identified our hiding place as the entrance to a cabal of dentists. Across Central Park West trees lashed like an island’s in a typhoon.’

There are so many other passages one could quote to show Lethem’s ability as a writer; here he describes snow falling in Manhattan:


[T]his advance wave melted so smoothly it was as though ghosts slid through the wet pavement’s screen to some realm below. Then, abruptly, the stuff quadrupled and began to lodge, the ghosts denied entry to the sub-terranean world, too many to welcome there, their bodies heaping uselessly against the former portal.


The swirl of the personal and virtual, sweeping and minute rendered me in a sort of daze, enjoyable and dizzying, as I zoomed to the book’s surprisingly rational conclusion, which could even be read as a coming-of-age, a growing-up narrative of sorts for the man-child Chase.

But it is the city that is wilfully dominant, and the occasionally revealed grim realities of Manhattan and the instability of its streets, suggest the need for its inhabitants to create alternate realities. As the old cliché goes, the city is the most important character … and so it is.

In a recent interview in the Telegraph, Lethem describes NY as: ‘a conceptual project, a place unnaturally subject to the distorting forces of capital, ideology, projection, wish-fulfillment […] a place both persistently real and unreal.’