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on 4 February 2011
Seriously, when you are this skilled a writer, when you know darn well how to handle plot to greatest effect - think: Motherless Brooklyn; then why wouldn't you write a novel that isn't so much `plotless' but rather: plot free? This guy is a literary virtuoso. Skilled, ambitious, in need of further challenge and change. Though this isn't my favourite of Lethem' s works, I have to say, I take my hat off to him, it's a success, it's the work of a great wordsmith - and on that level I enjoyed it immensely. As it says in the blurb, `it's unique' - and I don't believe that's a euphemism for 'not that great', but more of the `hey, here's a great writer that isn't jaded, isn't complacent, isn't trawling out the same old, same old' - so let's applaud this man for that. Take it on its on terms, plot free (though not entirely), and heavy on great writing. For me, that's enough.
This is my favourite of Lethem's: Motherless Brooklyn
I also recommend this one by Jayne Joso: Soothing Music for Stray Cats
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on 28 June 2014
I kept comparing Chronic city, while reading it, with my favorite Infinite jest, centering the big difference between the two to the fact that Chronic city is a work of great imagination, talented writing and fascinating ideas but lacks the spiritual and linguistic frenzy that renders the Wallace's book its special place in the history of literature (to me it's him and Kafka and then all the rest).But as the criterion of a great book is whether you are more interested while you proceed(or hurry to get over with) ,I found out that I had misjudged and that Jonathan Lethem 's got a style of his own, with many references that intermix fiction with reality the way his characters do when they try to cope with the reality they live in, and a personal vision that reminded me of the works of Dellilo and Philip Dick, only that I find his writing more satisfying.In fact, from a point on , I was so fascinated I couldn't put the book down, with a plethora of feelings coming in,and even a distant memory at the end from my favorite John Carpenter and his Prince of darkness, regarding the fragile limit between what we believe to be real and what lies beneath the surface(the book, very successfully, never succumbs to the conspirational scenarios it is flirting with).So: Infinite jest still stands alone(although it maybe incoherent or fragmentary or even boring at moments), but Chronic city-which, in any way, is a very different kind of book-is the most fascinating book I've read the last years(and I'm reading a lot, including, lately, some very good stuff by Alice Munro and Denis Johnson) and I have a great appetite to dive into other Lethem's books the sooner I can.
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on 17 May 2010
I didn't think that The Fortress of Solitude was a masterpiece when I first read it; but when I re-read it I was shocked at how dull I had been not to realize what a wonderful novel it was and is. So I'll be careful about Lethem's new effort. On the one hand I have a weird feeling of lack of focus; and an over-stretched plot. On the other hand, why couldn't I stop reading this even though the plot was meandering and the places and events and characters looked blurred (as blurred as Chase seen by Oona?).

Maybe I've missed something.
Maybe this is meant to be only apparently out of focus.
Maybe there's a subtext I managed to detect and some other readers missed.

Now try this: VALIS in Manhattan. What about it?

If that's true, there's a lot more to this novel than it may seem. Grey fog over South Manhattan: fictional fog or real smoke from 9-11? The tiger wandering in Manhattan: a surrealistic device to keep readers amused or Blake's Tyger unleashed? And what did they edit out of the NYT War Free edition? Why should the Chinese scatter orbital mines around the space station?

Lethem himself tells us that the characters in the plot have troubles seeing what is right before them. But this might also apply to us readers.
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Jonathan Lethem's ability to create a reality on the page is undeniable, whether it be the mind of a young man with Tourette's Syndrome in Motherless Brooklyn or the vibrant life of street kids on Brooklyn's Dean Street in the 1970s in The Fortress of Solitude. With an eye for unique observations and an ear for the perfect words to describe them, he allows the reader to share his often unusual visions of people, places, and events. His characters, always quirky and often asocial, offer new perspectives on contemporary life. Often considered a "genre-bending" author, Lethem rejects pigeon-holing and confinement to a set of formulaic expectations. Instead, he lets his vibrant, energetic characters take him where they will, in the process forming new story patterns while providing new insights into old themes.

While this freedom for his characters has been effective and successful in previous novels, the characters in Chronic City are, unfortunately, generally weak and self-indulgent human beings, and letting them loose to explore their limited worlds does not translate into the evolution of grand themes and new perspectives. Stuck in their own worlds, often fueled by alcohol and pot, they dither and quake, avoiding responsibility and concerted action, as if their own lives are the center of the universe.

Chase Insteadman, the main character, is a former child actor, now living on residuals, which gives him entree into elegant social circles. He is the fiance of Janice Trumbull, an American astronaut trapped in orbit on an international space ship, who writes him long and sad letters, relayed by NASA. Chase has befriended Perkus Tooth, a "cultural critic" and devoted fan of Marlon Brando who lives in an unkempt Upper East Side flat from which he lowers food and gourmet varieties of pot to a homeless man, who, in turn, steals and sells his books. Oona Laszlo, a ghostwriter currently working on a book for avant-garde exile Laird Noteless, who creates "abysmal spectacles," is attracted to Chase Insteadman. Richard Abneg, an assistant to Mayor Arnheim, is working to undo rent control while making moves on a wealthy woman so that he will have a place to live.

As these characters interact at parties, conduct an intervention for Perkus, read the "war free" edition of the New York Times, and work to save the eagles at Abneg's apartment building, Lethem creates a broad satire of life in the city. Because the characters themselves are self-centered and lacking the aggressive, hard edges which make good satire come alive, however, the overall effect of the satire remains generalized, without a grand scheme to keep the the reader engaged and active in the characters' lives and caring about their outcomes. The novel lacks a clear thematic focus for its frenetic ideas, and the "cute" names throughout suggest a straining for effect. Mary Whipple

Motherless Brooklyn
The Fortress of Solitude
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on 24 August 2010
Here is a future New York at its most monochrome, a doper's downer of a scene where everything's all glittering with snow and there's very little heat, and the mysterious Tiger that prowls the subway has a love life but the ineffectual characters aboveground really have none.

This is a parable of a novel -- not in the religious sense, although the mysteries of belief in something larger play a part -- but in its all-surface, little-substance plot there's a lot to consider, like a 1960s rock song whose lyrics add up to intimations of something grand and important (let's not name names here). "Chronic City" winds a stoner's way to meaning ... something more, even if Lethem himself couldn't really figure out what, exactly, it all means. And, to resurrect the old phraseology, that's pretty heavy.

Only, it really isn't. The signifying names -- Chase Insteadman, Perkus Tooth, Oona Laszlo, the Hawkman, Laird Noteless -- are more interesting than the characters themselves, and the story (such as there is) wanders through scenes and conspiratorial plots that are like hearing about a party afterward at which you only knew one person who was really a friend of somebody else. (At one point, Insteadman tells an overzealous movie producer about a script that never arrived, "I didn't get it." "I love it! You didn't get it. There's nothing to get, Chase!" the producer zings back, clueless. Many readers will feel the same way.)

The repeated references to music and movies and art that are meant to bind this group of people together, however loosely, are the in-jokes you missed at the party: Marlon Brando in a Muppet movie ... the Stones' lips-and-tongue logo on a woolen hat ... "The Twilight Zone" platinum collection four-disc set ... Is this the future or merely twenty minutes ahead?

Apparently no one reads (even Insteadman his own fiancee's letters), but they share a common knowledge of media-by-pixel. Perkus, the one-time rock critic and poster-artist, has developed a mistrust of the printed word altogether and scans the typeface of the New York Times for its hidden meanings.

As self-absorbed and insular as these characters are, twitching in their orbits like Perkus' wayward eye itself, they become increasingly more difficult to care about in the book, and the only real element of human kindness and love comes in the letters of Chase Insteadman's astronaut fiancee, caught in her own drama circling high above the earth, and blissfully unaware of the human chaos below.

Intentioned or not, Lethem's parable may well be telling us all simply to look ... up ... once in a while from our own, pixilated universes, unless we should miss the real meaning of it all. The book ends, paradoxically, with both a bang and a whimper, as if Lethem himself isn't really sure what it all signifies. But it's a trip, man, if you're up for it. After finishing "Chronic City" with all of its tricks (the chocolate smells, Ava the three-legged dog, the novel's own insubstantial plot), though, the one thing I really craved was a Jackson Hole burger.
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on 18 July 2011
Maybe I was expecting too much from this book based on the cover blurbs but I was bored. Characters I couldn't care less about. Labouring plot. I used to live in Manhattan and I do recognise some of the satire in this book, and I did finish it, but don't recommend it.
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on 2 December 2014
This novel may be worth reading for the flashes of brilliance that come through from time to time, but by and large it feels somewhat aimless. The story plods along (perfectly amicably) for around 500 pages- roughly 200 more than necessary.
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on 28 March 2010
I began reading this book with some excitement, after hearing the author speaking about the book during a Radio 3 broadcast. Despite enjoying the one hundred or so pages, I have abandoned this large novel, as I just felt the lack of plot - or should that be energy to the plot - was defeating my enjoyment. As much as I quite liked the central characters they remained for me 'characters' - I wanted them to grow a bit and be challenged in a way that did not seem ultimately feckless and so what? - ish.

Shame to give up on any book. I would consider there are several good stories, perhaps related, perhaps not, lurking in this book - but this is not a great novel.
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on 26 April 2012
Lethem is a master craftsman, and I read every paragraph as if I were listening to my favourite bands playing their most heavenly riffs and choruses. It was such bliss. I am going to reread this book again and again.

So taken am I with this writer, I have bought several more of his books and look forward to reading them all.
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on 24 February 2010
At page 225 (halfway through the book) I wondered if I should carry on. The texture of the book had not changed since I started reading it, and though it was quite enjoyable initially events were too few and far between to keep my interest up.

Definitely well written, but aimless.
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