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'Chronic City' by Jonathan Lethem

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Chronic City

A Novel

Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday: 424 pp., $26.95

Strange things still happen in New York. Beginning in fall 2005, bemused residents called the city to complain about a maple syrup smell wafting across sections of Manhattan. Some blamed New Jersey. Others pointed to a candy factory. A few even suspected an unusually fragrant act of terrorism. Earlier this year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg officially solved the "Great Maple Syrup Mystery" by linking it to fenugreek seeds from a food additives plant across the Hudson River. Case closed, apparently.

A disguised version of this story makes an appearance in Jonathan Lethem's new novel, "Chronic City," serving as one potential harbinger of an insidious metropolitan conspiracy. Supernatural possibilities spring from everyday questions: Why is the New Yorker's font so mesmerizing? Why is construction of the 2nd Avenue subway taking so long? Does the titular drink at Gray's Papaya actually prevent cancer? And while we're at it, is Marlon Brando dead or alive?

Lethem is commonly, if reductively, regarded as the bard of Brooklyn; in novels such as "Motherless Brooklyn" (about a Tourette's-stricken private detective) and "The Fortress of Solitude" (a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story), he explores the enigmas of the borough in which he was raised and where he still lives. His essay "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn" reckons with a downtown Brooklyn subway station and its "ghost platform," seamlessly shifting gears between the sociological, the mystical and the personal.

And yet, since Lethem is a writer who resists pigeonholing -- reading his newer works, you wouldn't guess that his earliest novels reflect a genre devotion to Philip K. Dick -- it's only natural that he would shift his gaze, in "Chronic City," to Manhattan. And not just Manhattan but the conspicuously un-literary environs of the Upper East Side. As Lethem describes the neighborhood: "If one of money's laws is that it can never buy taste, here is where it went after it failed, and here's what it bought instead."

Our credulous guide to the novel's Potemkin city of signs and simulacra is Chase Insteadman, a former child sitcom star living off his residuals. To hear him tell it, "I skate on frictionless ball-bearings of charm, convey a middling charisma that threatens no one." In other words, he's the perfect guest at any uptown cocktail party. His recent popularity is tied to the tragedy of his fiancée, an astronaut trapped on the International Space Station, doomed to eternal orbit.

As "Chronic City" opens, Chase visits the office of the Criterion Collection to record a DVD voice-over. There, he meets Perkus Tooth, a frantic, ageless scribbler in the spirit of Joe Gould. Perkus, who invades Criterion to write DVD liner notes on spec, is an avid collector of the esoteric cult item. In a rent-controlled Upper East Side apartment he shares with pot smoke and coffee grounds, he tries to gather "ellipsistic knowledge," reconstructing epiphanies through forgotten jazz records and dubbed VHS tapes, attempting to prove that "the horizon of everyday life was a mass daydream -- below it lay everything that mattered." As you might have guessed, Perkus is perennially unsuccessful with women.

Some of Perkus' stoned paranoiac revelations are mind-expanding, while others taper off into a deserved oblivion. But it's hard to remain unsusceptible to his euphoria, especially when he spouts brilliant mini-essays such as one calling Brando "the living avatar of the unexpressed, a human enunciation of the remaining hopes for our murdered era."

The first half of "Chronic City" coasts on this nervous energy. Part caretaker, part adoring fan, Chase finds himself caught in his new friend's web, smoking dope and eating cheeseburgers while absorbing long disquisitions that try to make sense of a city slightly out of joint. In Lethem's Manhattan, the New York Times is still the paper of record, but you can buy it in a War-Free Edition. The Wall Street area has been encased by a "gray fog" since the early autumn of 2001. In an allusion to a recently deceased master, the hot new 1,000-page avant-garde novel is called "Obstinate Dust." And did I mention that an escaped tiger is wreaking havoc all over the East Side?

"Where Perkus took me," Chase says, "in his ranting, in his enthusiasms, in his abrupt, improbable asides, was the world inside the world." In keeping with the novel's double-vision, this mystical underworld might simply be an online social landscape called Yet Another Life.

Unfortunately, "Chronic City" has to leave Perkus' sphere of influence, and when Lethem punctures this pot-infused bubble of cultural detritus and conspiracy theory, he seriously harshes the novel's mellow. To borrow a phrase from Perkus: "Don't rupture another's illusion unless you're positive the alternative you offer is more worthwhile than that from which you're wrenching them." If the first part of the book offers an immersive contact high, the second can feel like a morning-after headache. Observations that once seemed halfway clever -- "Ballard's just Baudrillard without the u-d-r-i" -- sound more and more like empty punch lines. And because Lethem never seems fully committed to Perkus' conspiracies, it's unclear why we should follow him down a rapidly multiplying series of rabbit holes.

In his 2007 Harper's essay "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," Lethem makes a strong case for the inescapability of cultural appropriation, wondering whether a sentient social being -- let alone a cultural magpie like Lethem -- can create anything but pastiche. (The essay is composed almost entirely of "stolen" material.) His 2007 novel, "You Don't Love Me Yet," named for a song title used by both Roky Erickson and the Vulgar Boatmen, approaches this issue more directly, focusing on a band that gets its lyrics through a series of cryptic phone calls.

If "Chronic City" is a more ambitious attempt to reckon with the same idea, too often it feels insular. Every out-of-context cultural allusion is imagined to have an intrinsic significance -- yet that means the novel's secrets are for insiders alone. Certainly, a real-life Chase, an avowed dilettante, would tire of Perkus sooner than he does. But then, "Chronic City" may be less Lethem's attempt at a literary magnum opus than a ready-made cult item with its own subterranean wavelength.

By one measure, it has already succeeded: Perkus Tooth has a Facebook profile.

Gottlieb writes about books and film for the Nation.

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