:: Article

Shaggy Drug Story

By Nick Garrard.


Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City, Doubleday, 2009

Q. How many hipsters does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. It’s a pretty obscure number. You probably wouldn’t know it.

Jonathan Lethem is in an odd position: feted by the literary crowd, garnished with plaudits and a Macarthur ‘genius’ grant, and yet his fictional output remains a singular mixture of surreal riffing, cultural references and reconditioned genre models. Resolutely ‘cool’. Frankly, the sort of business, usually restricted to dog-eared passed round hostels and accorded a minor revival decades later. His first novel Gun, with Occasional Music, blended hardboiled noir with sci-fi and the kind of crazed subcultural sculpting of William Burroughs at his nuttiest (evolved kangaroo hoodlums, teams of ‘babyheads’). Yet somehow, despite the peculiarities of his vision, he has found a safe place in the canonical firmament.

Jealous? Yes. Very.

Chronic City, his eighth novel, continues the movement from the overt sci-fi re-workings of his first writing, towards the dominant mode, bourgeois realism, stopping at several points in-between.

A rambling portrait of contemporary New York as seen through a refracted haze, Chronic City is best understood as a literary recreation of the free-associative patter spewing forth from the mouth of a late-night stoner. Lethem’s level of success has seemingly allowed him to jettison plot and narrative drive for a series of riffs, diversions and side quests. In the mix is a former child star negotiating an awkward romance whilst his fiancée circles the planet in a stranded space station, a frazzled, wall-eyed critic, and a giant tiger tearing ever larger chunks from the city sky line. Whether or not the respective segments hang together isn’t really the point of writing like this. In assembling the core elements of so many cultural offshoots – the conspiracy thriller, the monster movie, the Manhattan comedy of manners – he takes the constituent elements but ditches the prior models. Everything is valid for theft. The culture is a blank slate.

City narratives are often described with the single, rather duff cliché that the city itself is often the strongest character. Here, another stands in its place. Lethem nails both the acute paranoia of the over-educated outsider, and the way they forge alternative security through a nest of forgotten films, discarded records and wired personal obsessions.

Front and centre on this count we have Perkus Tooth. Equal parts Slavoj Žižek (minus the irono-Stalinism) and Hunter Thompson (minus the macho bluster), he is a consummate portrayal of a certain type of male personality; the obsessive collector, mining footnotes and marginalia, buffeting themselves against reality via networks of assumed meaning and favourite references. As portraits of male obsessiveness go, Perkus would be best imagined at the back of Nick Hornby’s record store, sniggering at the playlist and hunting for gems in the bargain bin.

So far, the book has been given something of a rough ride in most of its notices. Critics point towards the rambling structure, the frequent references, and the knowing artificiality of the names (Perkus Tooth, Chase Insteadman etc) as if Pynchon, Foster Wallace, and even Dickens hadn’t been there some years before. However, what seems to really bother the critics is something else: an elusive quality, a refusal to resolve or define itself. Whereas Delillo, that other master of American post-modernism, sets his oddballs and outsiders against a platform of world events and psychic disaster, Lethem’s downbeat cast of hacks and bums operate on a totally different wavelength where what matters isn’t the wider significance of smaller things, but the way in which the erased, contrived and refused always suggest agendas and purposes far larger than our own, resting tantalisingly beyond our understanding at the upper reach of the horizon.

Nick Garrard lives in Manchester. He is a co-editor for 3:AM and has written for Trespass, the Literary Review and Penpusher, among others.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 24th, 2010.