Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
I have no fucking idea what happened to Jonathan Lethem. He’s the fucking Avril Lavigne of hipster fiction. She started out country, and then went punk-poop, and now she’s Gwen Stefani? Lethem’s early works were this ethereal science fiction, this kind of otherworldly absurdist fabulousness. And now he’s gone all Record Store Day. It’s like if Rian Johnson spent too much time with Harmony Korine. I don’t know what that means either. THIS FUCKING BOOK.
It takes place in a New York that’s not quite real. It splits the difference between including actual references to real media and people, but then fictionalizes other real media. For example, Marlon Brando is real and did On The Waterfront and Apocalypse Now. But then he also did The Gnuppet Movie for a director called Florian Ib, who he hated and kept making fun of when he made the later films. So Muppets, Frank Oz and The Score don’t exist. But Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a real Steve Martin movie. He riffs a couple times on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which is hilarious because this is it’s caffeinated, less ponderous second cousin.
I cannot explain to you what this book is about. It’s so many disparate elements that are pastiched together into this kraftwerk AIDS quilt. A former child star becomes friends with a former cultural critic, where they spend their days smoking pot and expounding on pop culture at large. The child star is engaged to an astronaut who is stranded in space, unable to return because the Chinese have mined the sky. The critic’s protege is a ghost writer who fakes biographies and is engaged in a love affair with the child star. There’s also a giant tiger destroying part of the city, a riff on Second Life involving eBay and pottery, and an apartment building for dogs. It might take place in 2005.
It works, and then it stops working and then it starts again. It’s such a ponderous rambling carefuly crafted fucked-off. It loves the smell of it’s own farts. It doesn’t deserve a Pulitzer, but maybe a PBR. My only comparison is the word dope. Dope in old parlayance meant a dolt or an idiot. Now, in more modernized slang, it means hip or rad or awesome. It also is a slightly out-of-fashion term for marijuana. That sort of sliding, repurposing of terminology is the bread and butter and butter sandwich and buttered bread on a cat’s back of this book. I wasn’t enamored with Lethem’s last few offerings, and I respect this one without really enjoying it either. I don’t know. I just don’t fucking know. Maybe I needed to be high to unlock the higher echelons or some sort of sweatervested bearded bullshit like that.