Here's a short list of things Jonathan Lethem's new novel Chronic City is about: a 2-story tall tiger secretly demolishing buildings, a bizarre cloud that smells like chocolate to some, to others it doesn't smell at all, but comes across as a piercing sound originating within their ears. It's about a virtual world, part World of Warcraft and part Second Life and of the virtual treasure that has the power to transform your mind. It's also about how these virtual realities may not be virtual at all, and in fact it is our world that's the virtual one.
It's also about the people caught up in these things - specifically, three people. Perkus Tooth, former voice of the city and paranoid conspiracist, determined to prove between tokes of weed that not only is Marlon Brando still alive but is the savior of the city. Richard Abneg, aide to the mayor and best by eagles who live outside his apartment window, who rails against the cultured elite of the city even as he seduces and is seduced by one of its own. And Chase Insteadman, former child star and current conversation piece, who drifts in and out of both worlds, not realizing he's playing a bigger part than he ever imagined.
Lethem came to prominence crafting off-beat novels in the vein of Philip K. Dick, one of his heroes. Novels like Gun, With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon were as full of social ideas as they were of kangaroo detectives and gargantuan aliens. After a brilliant run of critically acclaimed novels set in a much more realistic setting (though no less off-beat), he returns in Chronic City to the familiar strains of Dick's best writing, while at the same time crafting a quirky valentine card to New York City.
Despite the myriad oddments in the story, which loosely tells the story of a possible conspiracy within the city and Insteadman's unknowing role in that conspiracy, what Lethem's really focusing on is the nature of friendship, the quest to become someone, an individual, and what it means to do all of this in new York City, a place where love it or hate it, you are forever changed by being there. His best books (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude) have a way of making their settings palpable, a living, breathing entity in which the characters become one with the streets, storefronts, and assorted locales. He also has a knack for pulling on the strings of our childhood, and although the specifics may differ, he's able to get to the emotions we carry about our old favorites toys, street corner songs, and humid days looking across the street at the girl or guy you hope to talk to by Summer's end. Chronic City hits those marks more that it misses them, in episodes like when Perkus, evicted from his apartment and forced to live in an apartment building for dogs, finds joy and love with a three-legged pitt bull named Ava. Or at the end of the novel, where Chase relates the story of the first time he met Janice Trumball, an astronaut whose current mission plays a large part in the novel's events.
Another key features that plays through Chronic City is the use of other writer's words. Lethem constantly quotes other books and, in some places, uses their words as his character's won (he credits all these sections in the back of the book) - for him, whose life was filled with the words of his heroes, Chronic City offers a chance to play with those same words in new and interesting ways.
Jonathan Lethem is one of the authors on my short of writers I discovered with their first book and continued to follow through their career, picking up each new work as soon as it came out. For the past decade he's grown by leaps and bounds, and Chronic City is a wonderful reminder of a great writer, a great city, and the wonderful words we remember for our entire lives.