The search for truth in the Chronic City

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By J.H. Ramsay

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In Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, a twisting, convulsing, collapsing New York City holds the lives of its inhabitants like an antique bird cage. Chase Insteadman and Perkus Tooth, the pivotal characters of the narrative, find themselves in a cancerous landscape of buildings and snow, a place they could step out of at any time. But they have no intention to escape.

When you get right down to the bare bones of Chronic City, it’s not a story about individual people or peculiar personality traits. As much fun as the characters are, they are treated as secondary to the novel’s most prominent feature: the city itself. A behemoth tiger roams the streets at night, gnawing on subway station walls, destroying rail tracks. A mad artist drills monumental holes in the middle of city blocks. A stench of chocolate suddenly permeates every corner of Manhattan. Chase and Perkus are thrown about like pinballs between these spectacular, and quite frankly, beautifully written, features of New York.

Lethem will claim that the central theme of the novel is a search for truth. And this is more than apparent. Chase and Perkus are constantly following up trails for the next great justification of human existence – from a rare form of pottery, to an online video game, to the best weed in Manhattan. However, I would take that theme even further. It’s more than just truth. Chronic City is about the relationship between people and their city. And with that considered, it begs the definitional question concerning the word ‘city’. Is it an environment a person inhabits? Or does it inhabit a person?

As is frequent in fiction, the end of the novel concentrates solely on unraveling lies and illuminating truths. And so it lags behind all the crazy pinball entertainment Lethem feeds readers for the first several hundred pages. But that’s ok, and it’s worth getting through just to accomplish a feeling of closure.

In comparison with the recently raved fiction from Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tom McCarthy, Jonathan Lethem holds his territory well. He has a niche. He practically has a patent on New York City – no other writer today seems willing to approach it with the same enthusiasm and passion as Lethem. There are clear moments in the core of this book that burst out at you screaming ‘love, love, love!’ And it’s these moments that are worth reading the book to find. Because few things are more beautiful in writing than a true artist displaying true admiration. And even more beautiful is that artist crossing the line between admiration and addiction.

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