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"To whom does New York belong?"
on 3 November 2009
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
The Fortress of Solitude