A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia — CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem
Creativity is a gift that Athena denied to Jonathan Lethem. She instead bestowed upon him the ability to absorb isolated media images, though the power to meaningfully synthesize these images is another arrow missing from Lethem’s quiver.
Lethem’s latest is Chronic City (2009), and it is the worst novel that I have ever read. Considering the fact that I have wasted much of my life reading bad novels, this is really saying something.
Our narrator is Chase, a nondescript, vacant out-of-work actor whose wife died in outer space. Chase, it seems, has died in inner space. He is dead inside and made of plastic. We know nothing more about our “protagonist”–he is a cipher–and therefore it is difficult to care about what happens to him. Chase meets Perkus Tooth, an “eccentric popular-cultural critic,” in the offices of the Criterion Collection in Manhattan, and a vaguely homoerotic friendship develops between the two characters.
Perkus Tooth, Chase discovers, is a neighbor. Tooth burrows himself in his warren, searches for “chaldrons” on eBay, and glides through Wikipedia. Both friends drink Coke and eat cheeseburgers. They make rather obvious cultural references–Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger are the two names that surface most frequently in their speech. Not much else happens–which would be fine, if this “not much else” were engagingly written.
Perkus introduces Chase to a lost, early, and completely fictitious Werner Herzog film called Echolalia, which “documents Herzog’s attempts to interview Marlon Brando… Brando doesn’t want to give the interview, and whenever Herzog corners him Brando just parrots whatever Herzog’s said” . Having seen much of Herzog’s work and having taught his cinema at a university for five years, I was very puzzled by this unrecognizable pastiche. Herzog has ignored Hollywood and its unionized actors until just very recently, when he migrated to Los Angeles. The idea of interviewing Marlon Brando would have repelled him.
At this point, on Page Five, it dawned on me what I was reading: Chronic City is a hipster Bildungsroman, a document of hipsterism in early twenty-first-century America that future historians will use in an attempt to understand how this malady could have infected and corrupted our already vitiated and hollow culture.
Let me explain what I mean by the word “hipster.” A hipster is an illiterate nerd. Neither Perkus nor Chase read very much in the book, and their references are almost exclusively cinematic or musical. Not to mention, mostly exoteric. The closest they come to approaching literature is by way of Kafka: Perkus recites a passage from Kafka’s “Forschungen eines Hundes” at one point (in bad English translation). He neither discusses the story’s form nor its meaning. This is very telling. Both hipsters do what all hipsters do: They merely stockpile and warehouse cultural detritus without thinking about what any of it might signify or how it is constructed. And so both characters mindlessly compile references to cultural trash, without any purpose or sense of an overarching project. They might as well have an encyclopedic knowledge of vegetables: “Have you ever eaten a carrot?” “Did you know that there exists an orange cauliflower? I read about it on Wikipedia.” And so forth and so on.
The point to be made is the following: Lethem’s hipsters are not readers. They are not thinkers. They are not artists. They are not creators. They are not even scholars of cultural trash.
They are repositories of media junk.
The same could be said of our esteemed writer. His mind has not been formed by the study of great authors, his writing is unsupported by broad learning, and he seems to suffer from analphabetism. He produces sentences in a rattling, mechanistic, depressingly vapid style. He lacks verbal power. Here is Lethem’s description of a vase: “It had a translucence, perhaps opalescence would be the word, like something hewn from marble the color of a Creamsicle” . Would it be too much to ask Lethem, a writer who was nominated by the Kirkus Review as one of this country’s finest, to look up the words “translucence” and “opalescence” in a dictionary before using them? And when the nodal point of his fictional universe is Manhattan, when entry into The New Yorker is seen as a kind of transcendence, that one essential spiritual quality that all fictionists must possess is lacking: empathy.
To return to my thesis: that Chronic City is a hipster Bildungsroman, a novel of self-formation which charts the progressive hipification of its main character until he becomes thoroughly hip. “Being hip” means being seen by the right people with the right books, the right CDs, and the right DVDs. At the end of the text, Chase reads “Ralph Warden Meeker’s” Obstinate Dust, a faux novel inspired by that unread magnum opus of hipsterism, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He meets the glance of a stranger: “Once in a while on the underground trains I look up and see another rider with a copy of Meeker’s bulky masterpiece in their [sic] hands, and we share a sly collegial smile, like fellow members of some terrorist cell” .
Upon reading this passage, I experienced something like a vomitous epiphany, a negative revelation that powers me to refine my earlier definition of “hipster”: A hipster is a consumerist who affects a superior consciousness, who pretends to be superior to the consumerist culture that has swallowed him. Yes, he drinks Coke and eats cheeseburgers just like the rest of mainstream America. But he listens to Neutral Milk Hotel and buys Jonathan Lethem books, and that makes it all OK.
Dr. Joseph Suglia