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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 Chase love letters—or appears to send them, given the novel’s insistence on the doubtfulness of appearances—whose tone of romantic desolation seems manufactured, so out-of-tune is it with the novel’s general attitude of quick-witted irony:

How fascinating can we really be? They’ll forget us soon. We’ve practically forgotten ourselves. That’s why I rely on you, Chase, to believe in me. As I drift, you anchor me in reality. On Earth. In Manhattan, where you sit reading this…. That’s where I picture you, Chase. With powdered sugar on your fingers as you open Mission Control’s overnight envelope. The sugar on your lips and fingers and possibly on your nose, too—that sweet dust is me, your astronaut, your lostronaut, your Janice.

Janice, we soon discover, is sick, and possibly dying of cancer. Or so it seems. The reader’s suspicion that these sentiments and this situation are trumped-up and contrived, and that her death is somehow arranged for public consumption, turns out to be right on the money. The contrivance, in one of the plot’s final revelations, is the whole point. Given Janice’s distance and unknowability, Chase commences an affair with another woman who is scarcely more knowable, Oona Laszlo, the aforementioned ghost, who is working on the memoirs of a landscape artist, Laird Noteless. Her façade, which is compared to the “shattered glaze on a Renaissance portrait,” rarely slips from its glacial froideur—indeed, “the face that glared from beneath dared you to waste any sympathy upon it.”

The great puzzle in the opening pages of Chronic City has to do with love: Why should Chase Insteadman love one woman he can’t remember and another woman he doesn’t seem to like? The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is that he feels that it’s his job:

My job was not only to endure and thrive in the impossible situation but to make myself into a kind of chaldron, to generate a love field…. I had nothing to protect or defend. I only had to do my job.

A chaldron? We’ll get to that in a minute. Can there be a more solitary anguish than to feel that one’s love must be willed, out of some obscure sense of dutifulness, especially when that love is directed toward women who are as remote and out of this world as these two women are? And if the women are unreal, how should one treat them? “I pined deeply for Janice,” Chase claims, “even if I couldn’t know who I was pining for. Maybe I pined for pining, for the notion of love itself.”

There is a kind of escape hatch from this logical and emotional difficulty, and Chase learns of it from his friend and mentor, Perkus Tooth, a mostly unemployed cultural critic and graffiti artist, a man who delivers his words with “merciless cool.” The relationship between Chase Insteadman and Perkus Tooth in this novel—broken-hearted youth to wised-up mentor—has some shadow resemblance to the emotional connection between Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude in Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003), although the Brooklyn of Fortress has a physical reality and specificity that Chronic City‘s Manhattan entirely lacks. The two men engage in long nighttime bull sessions having to do with the ephemera of culture, and Chase’s devotion to Perkus serves as a kind of antidote to his bewilderment about the women in his life. Perkus, a bachelor, lives for, and in, an interlocking system of cultural signs and wonders, toward which he counsels skepticism: the entire city may be wired, virtual, a simulacrum, filled with duplicitous pasteboard entertainments, and the initiated, the cognoscenti, should be on a mission to separate the true from the false, or, if that distinction proves to be untenable, between cherished cultural treasures and trash.

Chronic City‘s odd narrative rhythms, its stopping and starting, result in part from constant interruptions during which one of these particular treasures is examined. They include the Dell paperback editions of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels; Marlon Brando’s death; Dr. Seuss; the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls; “The Midnight Sun” from the third season of The Twilight Zone; the typeface used by The New Yorker; Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film I Know Where I’m Going!; marijuana for connoisseurs in different varieties and colors, including one called “ICE”; and others, many others.

The interruptions, in what the novel calls “torrential specifics,” are charming at first but become exasperating when teased out at any length; they have the aura of private enthusiasms generated from a core feeling of stifled, adolescent-era loneliness. It is as if the inability to come to grips with any sort of adult relationship produces, by reaction, this mania for cultural playthings. They’re not particularly demanding, these familiar pop culture artifacts, and they’re fun for a while, but they can only be comforting to a reader who has already entered the generational magic circle inhabited by Chase and Perkus. The riffs on these artifacts are not meant to be persuasive; they are simply displayed, as brilliant verbal performances, to the already converted.

He [Perkus] insisted I admire the original die-cut cardboard jacket of the Stones LP, the band members’ lipsticked and wig-topped faces camouflaged among those of Lucille Ball, Raquel Welch, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Monroe. “You can tell it’s the first pressing, because right afterward they had to withdraw this jacket—the Garland and Monroe estates sued. It’s incredible how much this music is steeped in the ambiance of the New York City of 1978. It’s as much a New York record as White Light/White Heat or Blonde on Blonde.” Well, I only half followed this, but I was glad to hear him back tracing tangible cultural clues, this being one thing that made him recognizably himself….

Joined by another cultural warrior, Richard Abneg, who works for the Bloomberg-like mayor, getting rid of rent-controlled housing, Perkus and Chase form a little gang, “The Three Musketeers,” who are always, Chase claims, on the verge of some tremendous expedition. Their grail, an object that provokes their obsessional acquisitive mania, is a “chaldron,” a mesmerizing urn-like artifact first spotted on eBay. The characters’ obsessional fixation on these chaldrons is like other such fixations in the book, each one striking a particular key and thus producing a series of nonsequential chords. Chaldrons are hypnotically beautiful and somehow beyond explanation. Are they real? Yes and no. There is much scurrying around to acquire one of them, and during the scenes when the scurrying occurs, the reader is likely to think of The Maltese Falcon, whose MacGuffin is, like the chaldron, another perfectly empty object pursued by colorful oddballs. Here, things that contain emptiness are by their very nature beautiful and are desired, and are, given the logic of this narrative, resolutely unobtainable (they have no physical existence—they are, in effect, all image).

Because the women in the book are literally remote, unreal, glacial, unknowable, or imaginary, and the other objects of interest mostly unobtainable, the fantasy-stricken men tend to be stalemated at every turn. “Love” is talked about constantly here but rarely experienced, though Chase’s admiration for Perkus does carry a certain amount of weight. There is, however, one exception to the problem of loving and the issue of reciprocity. It arises within an honest-to-god love story in Chronic City‘s central section. In tone and feeling, this episode is different from almost everything that has preceded it, as if Schubert had taken over the piano from Alfred Schnittke. The game of what’s-real-and-what’s-fake falls away or is finessed. Knowingness gives way to tenderheartedness, a scandal to hipsters. All at once we find ourselves in the midst of a love story between Perkus Tooth and a character named Ava, and this sweet love story is the very antidote to every preceding ironic gesture. Its narration goes on at some length.

How is such a modulation possible? Ava, as it turns out, is a three-legged female pit bull. Skepticism about the existence of other beings does not, in this book, extend to the animal realm. Dogs are wiser than we are, and Ava is a kind of ambassador for the real:

Those first days were all sensual intimacy, a feast of familiarity, an orgy of, yes, pair-bonding, as Perkus learned how Ava negotiated the world, or at least the apartment, and how he was to negotiate the boisterous, insatiable dog, who became a kind of new world to him….

For there was no mistaking that the command had come, as in Rilke’s line: you must change your life. The physical absolutes of coexistence with the three-legged pit bull stood as the outward emblem of a new doctrine: recover bodily absolutes, journey into the real.

Ava, we (and Perkus) discover, is loving, diligent, slobberingly affectionate, fierce, and forthright. She is without duplicity, a model dog intent on her doggy needs, a “life of bodily immediacy.” With her, Perkus Tooth does indeed journey into the real, so much so that he seems to acquire Ava’s own affliction, a case of hiccups. The dog starts to worry about him, “now that he’d taken her malady upon himself.” More importantly, he is given a rest from the mania induced by the vision of the chaldron, “a container for what under duress he’d call souls.” Love, which seems impossibly complicated between adult men and women, can at least be evoked between men and beasts. Under the spell of this dog, Manhattan briefly manages to appear normal, and the novel itself shifts into flat-out realism.

Chronic City cannot calm down except when its characters are watching animals, those fortunate beings that seem exempt from the need, felt everywhere else in this book, to signify. Outside of language, they are blessed. And because animals are mostly free of human intentions and their attendant subtexts, they induce in the novel’s characters a kind of placid contemplation, a rest from their usual fever-dreams:

The ducks seemed a kind of eruption, a happening, yet they were too fixedly themselves, too plainly on a natural mission, to be a harbinger of anything but ducks. I yearned for the group to waver, to turn and linger, to sweep through my sky space a second time at least, but in a moment they were gone, another ordinary mystery, one discrete plane of existence momentarily intersecting with another, under my obtuse witness.

That’s beautiful. And there are many other such moments scattered everywhere else in this novel. But panic about signification, about representation, gradually takes over both Perkus Tooth and the novel itself, so that its closing pages begin, almost literally, to start gasping for breath—to be drawn in, I think, by their own emptiness.

One of the book’s narrators—there are several—names this symptom ellipsis, “a species of blank interval, a nod or fugue in which he [Perkus Tooth] was neither depressed nor undepressed, not struggling to finish a thought nor to begin one. Merely between.” Perkus, having taken over Ava’s hiccups, speaks with large white spaces on the page between phrases, verbally elliptical, while simultaneously coming to believe that he lives in

a virtual reality, and needed to feel better about it. We might as well live in a concocted environment, according to his new epiphany, since our awareness was a sort of virtual construction to begin with.

The narration’s denials that Perkus is either depressed or undepressed fail to convince: it appears and sounds as if Perkus is dying of something he can hardly name.

Near his own end, and the end of the book, Perkus takes up a new theme: “the constructed nature of all consciousness.” Every constructed word he speaks creates a lesion on both sides of it, an unreconstructed blank. At the same time, he also suffers from a bad case of Baudrillard: “The only conspiracy was a conspiracy of distraction.” These ideas are not new, but they are experienced here as if they constituted a great scandal, and because ideas and obsessions are all the characters can really possess, and because even dogs cannot cure the characters of the unreality from which they suffer, the novel is left with no alternative but to assert that “to attempt to absolutely sort fake from real was a folly….”

So, finally, it’s all fake, or might as well be, and everyone becomes, in effect, an unengaged stranded solitary, a sleepwalker. “Sleepwalkers, leave other sleepwalkers alone!” And: “Interrogate your solipsism.” But how? If I am asking myself all the tough questions, the game is automatically rigged. Solitude, in Lethem’s fiction, causes nearly all seemingly stable structures to melt into air. The book concludes in a condition of free-floating grief and resignation, with Chase’s admission that he has grown tired of models and that he had been “forced to understand I was an actor in a script.”

This is hardly the novel’s only mood. Lethem, to his credit, will do anything for a laugh. “Man is born free,” one character intones, “and everywhere is in chain stores.” At a dinner party, the guests are presented with “tongues of eggplant and bell pepper rolled into a juicy little vortex or eye at the center of a plate spattered with pesto.” The Bloombergish mayor is “a bit of gravitational sinkhole, a place where other men’s hopes had gone to die.” We are given several hilarious scenes, including a dinner party at the mayor’s residence, and another at a greasy spoon.

But the reader’s laughter remains provisional. Behind the hilarity is distress, like an inert ingredient. The solitary suffering, which is genuine, has been loaded onto characters who are so isolated and preoccupied with the unreality of their locale and their vacuum-selves that they often seem unable to communicate what they’re feeling for fear of exposing a fraudulent sentiment. Everyone in Chronic City is wonderfully verbal about cultural phenomena but virtually tongue-tied when it comes to the standard emotions of intimacy, the articulation of which might expose the speaker to the charge of being uncool. Skepticism and irony are given all the good speeches, as in a Coen brothers’ film, while the characters’ inwardness remains resolutely unnameable.

The effort to differentiate between the false and the real creates two classes in this novel, the Dupes and the Non-Dupes. The Non-Dupes are not taken in by the world of shadows, as are the Dupes, credulous squares who believe what they read in TheNew York Times. One character reads the Times “just to remind him his old enemies in the line of middlebrow reality placation were still in business.” It would seem as if this problem of sorting out the real from the false is largely an aesthetic one in a novel stuffed with movies, books, music, and simulacra of all kinds, but of course this problem has its political and ethical side. If indeed the populace is being duped most of the time by the powers-that-be, what is the proper response?

Chase contemplates several actions he might take—hurling himself into one of Laird Noteless’s art constructions as a way of raising public consciousness, for example—but finally he settles on doing nothing: “Better to drift into the gray fog and be forgotten,” he thinks. Hopeless, then, to wise up the Dupes, if you are living “the smoky half-life of a child star,” full of “parties, gossip, assignations.” The word for this position is “cynicism,” cynicism that permits the speaker to enjoy the rewards of leisure-time activities and paid unemployment while still displaying a hyperarticulate knowingness about the fraudulence of capitalism. One first criticizes the cake, then eats it. Coming to the end of the novel, I was reminded of two lines from Louis Simpson’s poem “On the Lawn at the Villa” (1963): “It’s complicated, being an American,/Having the money and the bad conscience, both at the same time.”

What the novel therefore does is to place real problems in a half-real, half-unreal city populated with unreal characters. “Not everything was in quote marks,” the narrator observes, but all the dramatis personae in the novel certainly are, the relevant markers of their unreality and their postmodern belatedness being their names—Stanley Toothbrush—and their bowling-alone style of collective endeavor, which is more like parallel play.

Inside Chronic City lies a critique of the city as a grotesque landscape of smeared signs and significations, a narcotic paradise from which it is impossible to be freed. In this respect, the book resembles some of the novels of Philip K. Dick, of whose work Lethem is a great admirer, but the tone of Chronic City has very little of Dick’s forlorn desperation. A nearer narrative exemplar of the sick city and its infected inhabitants might well be the Brooklyn drawn by Paula Fox in Desperate Characters (1970), another one of Lethem’s many (and winningly generous) enthusiasms. The Brooklyn of Desperate Characters is planted in realist soil, but its flowers are all conspiratorial. In his introduction to Fox’s first novel, Poor George (1967), Lethem observes that, out of his love for Fox’s fiction, he is “wearing the book as a skin.” Here is a metaphor born from admiration that ends in concealment. Lethem goes on to say that the skin he is wearing

is particularly tender to social loathing and self-loathing, to morbid confession disguised as chitchat, and, above all, to postures of self-willed innocence in human relations.

As it happens, this description presents several of the standard afflictions that a number of the characters in Chronic City suffer from. And note that phrase “self-willed innocence.” Self-willed innocence is not true innocence but disingenuousness in disguise, unaware of its own corruption, and is something closer to arrested development, a refusal to move out of a peculiarly quarantined psychic locale.

Much of the novel therefore reads like brilliant static, or genius-level stuttering, or a story told by an amnesiac—Chase Insteadman’s central dilemma has to do with his amnesia. Lethem has edited a very interesting anthology of fiction related to amnesia, and in its introduction he notes that in certain fiction he admires, “conjured out of the void by a thin thread of sentences, every fictional assertion exists on a background of consummate blankness.” That’s a pretty good description of Perkus Tooth’s last words.

It is as if Chronic City were made up of stars and constellations, but no sky. There is no sky because here the problem of solitude cannot be solved by willing oneself to love, and solitude in Jonathan Lethem’s work is a gravitational field that sucks everything into it. One cannot read Lethem without sensing this solitude, its muted suffering, its desperate cheerfulness and claustrophobia, along with the other compensatory mechanisms employed to deal with it. Given the novel’s habit of anticipating every possible intellectual objection you might make to it, its intellectual grasp of every possible artistic strategy, the reader nevertheless finishes Chronic City feeling a kind of cramped anguish occasioned by the book’s desolation, located squarely in its refusal to dramatize feelings of intimacy that, out of a misplaced stoicism, it regards as unreal.

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