A tiger roams the streets of Manhattan, destroying entire buildings on its rampage, the whole of Downtown is obscured by an unexplained grey fog and a fad is developing for mysterious vases, called chaldrons, that sell for extraordinary prices on eBay. [amtap book:isbn=0571235670]
Against this odd background Jonathan Lethem sets the lives of his main characters. Chase Insteadman is a former child actor who still lives off the royalties from the hit sitcom in which he starred. These days he is more famous for his relationship with Janice Trumbull, an astronaut trapped in orbit on a space station.Chase becomes friends with Perkus Tooth, formerly a popular critic but now making a living writing liner notes for film reissues, Oona Laszlo, a ghostwriter, and Richard Abneg, a former activist squatter who has ended up working for the Bloomberg-esque mayor.
The cast lead fairly ordinary lives, despite the strange alternate New York City that they inhabit, but they are gradually drawn into the wider events in the city.
I can imagine lots of people adoring this book - and I can see why they would - but I found it ordinary. It's hard to really care about any of the characters because none of them feels particularly real and all of their 'problems' seem to relate to their lives on the periphery of popular culture, which isn't a concern that evokes much sympathy.
As with The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem seems to feel that popular culture is worth examining and, once again, he comes close to articulating why he feels that way but doesn't quite manage it. The two books also feature characters who write liner notes; what's the significance of Lethem's interest in this niche pursuit? Is it something to do with the assessment and repackaging of culture?
There is a tension between popular culture that is somehow 'authentic' and the kind that is worthless. Lethem seems to believe that the difference is important - Perkus considers it a mission to bring his pop culture taste to the masses, for example - but seems unable to say why.
Are we supposed to see the work of artist Laird Noteless as pretentious - because it certainly seems that way - or are Perkus's fly-posted bulletins more important? And if so, why? Perhaps Lethem wants us to ask the question but if he does then he needs to show that it's worth asking and I'm not convinced that he does.
Central to the book is the notion of alternate realities and the idea that our world is overwhelmingly likely to be a simulation. The world of Chronic City, then, is subtly different to ours because it is just another computer simulation. At least, that seems to be a logical conclusion to draw from the text. But so what?
There is plenty to like here. Some lovely descriptions, for example: "…he was small, too, but not in the pumpkin-on-a-stick-figure manner of Perkus Tooth or Oona herself, more like a golem made by somebody running low on clay…" There is some amusing media commentary too, particularly the "war free" edition of the New York Times and Perkus's attack on Malcolm Gladwell for "the commodification of whim".
Lethem has said that the book was strongly influenced by Philip K Dick and Saul Bellow. Indeed, it could certainly be compared to The Man in the High Castle. It reminded me of two books in particular. First, Don DeLillo's White Noise, which I am not a fan of but lots of people are, and second, of Nicola Barker's Darkmans, which is only tangentially similar but is vastly superior.
As I said above, I can imagine plenty of people loving this book. It brings together a lot of intriguing ideas in a witty and intelligent way. The problem, for me, is that it fails to do anything with them once it has them there.