Stars Without Sky

Chronic City

by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 469 pp., $27.95
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Dominique Nabokov
Jonathan Lethem, Brooklyn, 2009

The title of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel suggests a cityscape that is both unwell and bedeviled by repetition. The story is located largely on New York’s Upper East Side, specifically 84th Street and Second Avenue, with extensions bounded by the East Nineties to the north and Grand Central Station to the south. A more insular novel would be difficult to imagine. One of the book’s narrators “flinches from any wider world,” and another character feels as if he is far afield on Twenty-third Street and Sixth. Even the West Side is “a mysterious distance from the East,” and as for the rest of the world, forget it. The characters’ neighborhood feels like a hideout, a “quarantine,” a fortress, to use a Lethemian word, beyond which it is dangerous, even fatal, to move.

Within this neighborhood prowls a tiger, destroying inconvenient and comfortable old buildings. The tiger is enormous, “a second-story tiger.” Is this gigantic tiger in cahoots with rapacious city planners and thus a “city operative”? Well, maybe. Buildings appear to move from one place to another, and lower Manhattan below Chambers Street is shrouded in a perpetual fog. There is a mysterious smell outdoors. Everyone is stoned much of the time on super high-class marijuana called “chronic.” Metaphors, as in a bad drug trip, have been animated and have achieved semipermanent status: for example, the novel’s main characters are not certain whether the tiger is an underground tunnel-digging machine or an “actual” tiger of mammoth proportions, and elsewhere in the novel a ghostwriter seems to be more ghost than writer, appearing and disappearing with maddening unpredictability. Everyone suffers from a sense of unreality described in another context as “the leakage of the dream life into the waking.”

In this somewhat fantastical city—“somewhat” because the novel takes place in 2004, and the locations named in Manhattan are ones we recognize—the characters experience their own vacuity as both oppressive and liberating, giving them a psychic economy of “easeful plasticity.” The novel’s intermittent narrator, Chase Insteadman (the characters’ Pynchonesque names are ubiquitous), “the saddest man in Manhattan,” is a former child actor who lives off the residuals from his TV series Martyr and Pesty. Right from the start, Chase insists on his own actorish emptiness, telling the reader no less than three times that he constitutes a vacuum, a kind of hungry ghost “filled by the folks I’m with, and vapidly neutral in their absence.”

To make matters worse for this human vacuum, Chase is engaged to an astronaut, Janice Trumbull, who is trapped in a space station, unable to return to earth because of an orbiting minefield placed there by the Chinese. To say that this woman is unreal is simply to state the obvious; she is literally distant and unavailable. Chase appears to love her without having any idea why he should, or any idea of how their relationship began, and Janice, for her part, sends …

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