Jonathan Lethem's CHRONIC CITY, surreal and beautiful sf explores the authentic and the unreal

Jonathan Lethem's extraordinary new novel Chronic City tells the story of Chase Insteadman, a washed up, grown up child actor living off his sitcom residuals in wealthy, Upper East Side New York. Chase is caught between two improbabilities: his fiancee, a dying astronaut stranded on a space-station walled off from Earth by a Chinese orbital minefield, from which vantage she commands daily headlines; and Perkus Tooth, a media-obsessed Philip-K-Dickian ex-rock-critic who lives in a weed-smoke- filled cave of a rent- controlled apartment from which he obsessively watches obscure movies and reads obscure books.

Chase's story — magnificently told in Lethem's most poetic language — is the quest for authenticity. An actor, Chase finds himself acting the part of the grieving widower-to-be, of the handsome beefcake at the swanky party, of the sincere sidekick to the ascerbic and unintelligible Perkus Tooth. And as Chase begins an affair with Oona Lazlo, a celebrity ghostwriter autobiography writer, he finds himself even more drawn to the questions of what is real and what isn't?

For example: is America at war? Depends on which edition of the New York Times you read — their "war-free" edition is flensed of all mention of the war. Or how about this: what is the true nature of the "escaped tiger" that is destroying Manhattan one bodega and run-down apartment building at a time? Is it really a two-storey-tall tiger? Or is it (as Chase's City Hall insider pal insists) a cover story for a rogue 2nd Avenue Tunnel-digging machine that got lonely and now marauds beneath New York?

The story grows progressive weirder and more mystic — there's a sub-plot involving the true nature of Marlon Brando's relationship with the "Gnuppets" (a thinly veiled version of the Muppets); another involving a fictionalized version of Second Life; a third involving "chaldrons," mystical vessels that can only be found on eBay, where you are always, always outbid.

In some ways, Chronic City is the bookend to one of my favorite Lethem novels, the brilliant Motherless Brooklyn (if you can find the audiobook read by Steve Buscemi and only available on cassette, jump at it). Motherless is all about the gritty, the real, the urban — street kids who work as hoods-for-hire for a dirty private eye. In its own way, it's also about authenticity — about whether the "authentic" street identity of the characters is just a role, just another put-on.

By moving uptown to the genteel and posh precincts of rarified wealth and pathological intellect, Lethem is able to summon all his PK Dick chops, to channel the media-nuts who circulate in literary scenes, to ask important, hard-to-articulate and impossible-to-answer questions about what is genuine, what is artifice, and when it matters.

Chronic City