Books

Lethem's latest is chronically dissatisfying

Good books — not even great, just merely good —transport a reader to another time, to another place or into another life. And there are books that flash great potential, only to lack that transportational ability, leaving readers ultimately frustrated and disappointed. Unfortunately, “Chronic City” is one of the latter.

Jonathan Lethem, who’s written numerous novels, stories, essays and articles on a variety of cultural topics, gives us a motley crew of Upper East Side oddballs in “Chronic City.”

Chase Insteadman, child star of a TV sitcom, now lives comfortably on royalties but is dealing with renewed publicity as the fiance of Janice Trumbull, an astronaut trapped in a space station orbiting Earth (the letters from Janice — arguably the best part of the book — originally appeared in the New Yorker as the stand-alone story “Lostronaut”).

Chase’s newfound friend Perkus Tooth is a reclusive former guerrilla gadfly with an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure films. Their mutual friend Oona Laszlo is a ghostwriter for celebrity autobiographies. A few other types populate their small circle.

They’re not lovable eccentrics, or comical eccentrics, or scary eccentrics. Chase isn’t really even eccentric, he just goes with the flow of the eccentrics around him. But they don’t do much, and as such nothing much happens in this book.

They smoke pot and discuss movies. They smoke pot and bid on vases on eBay. They smoke pot and go to fancy dinner parties. And when they stop smoking pot they don’t get any more interesting. This gang shows us that a certain segment of New Yorkers are as provincial, insular and closed-minded as they no doubt imagine people from the tiniest speck of a rural “flyover country” town would be — but, of course, they don’t know any.

Lethem is a clever, creative writer — showy, even, but he has the chops to pull it off. His descriptions evoke searing images in few words; his phrases turn with an elegance few writers could ever hope to match. But it’s largely wasted in “Chronic City” on tedious characters and a plot that can only in a fit of generosity be called “meandering.”

The cultural name-dropping — both fictional and real — gets old quickly, and the over-the-top names are more distracting than Dickensianly apropos. Besides Chase, Perkus and Oona, we have Georgina Hawkmanaji, Florian Ib, Strabo Blandiana, Anne Sprillthmar and Laird Noteless.

But Lethem himself must realize this, as this exchange between Chase and Oona about a man in her apartment demonstrates:

“His name is Stanley Toothbrush.”

“See, now you’re definitely making fun of me, because that’s idiotic.”

“Stanley would be awfully hurt if he heard you. You have no idea how often people laugh in his face.”

“Toothbrushæ.æ.æ. that’s just a little hard to swallow.”

Ironically, the people with the halfway boring names — Janice Trumbull, the astronaut, and mayoral aide Claire Carter — turn out to be the more interesting characters, and we don’t get nearly enough of them.

“Chronic City” reads like it’s one big winking in-joke. It’s occasionally droll, but carried on for 467 pages, it ends up quite a slog.

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