BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 15, 2009
By Jonathan Lethem
(Doubleday, 432 pp., $27.95)
My heart sank when I read the opening line of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel. “I first met Perkus Tooth in an office,” it reads. Oh no, I thought, not that again. Is he really going to drag us through the kind of genre exercise a cutesy name like “Perkus Tooth” connotes? Lethem’s career was not supposed to be going like this. After banging out four sciencefiction novels in as many years, he had graduated, with Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, to a more mature realism. Genre elements still clung like packing chips to both works--detective fiction in Motherless Brooklyn, the last remnants of sci-fi, or so it seemed, in Fortress--but so stunning was the latter despite its flaws, so dense its every phrase with feeling and implication, that there seemed to be no going back. After successively closer approximations, the introverted boy from Boerum Hill, who flung himself into prodigies of pop-cultural absorption after the death of his strong-willed hippie mother a short while after his fourteenth birthday, had come home to his subject. Family dynamics and adolescent friendships; comic books and rock and roll; the word on the street, the throb of the city, the wounded edge where black meets white. Brooklyn sang, and Lethem vibrated like a reed. You Don’t Love Me Yet, a facile rom-com set amidst the L.A. hipoisie, was a beach vacation we could have done without, but Chronic City promised a return to New York and, at more than four hundred pages, a resumption of high ambition.
And then, right off the bat, “Perkus Tooth.” Still, the rest of the opening is reassuringly plausible, and squarely within the vein of its author’s recent obsessions. Perkus turns out to be a stock Lethemite figure, the geek genius who inhabits a mental universe as jumbled with books, movies, music, and marijuana smoke as the grotty Batcave hideaway in which he passes most of his time. The adolescent Mingus in his Fortress basement, turning Dylan on to comics. Dylan himself, the novel’s protagonist, who grows up to be a rock critic. Bedwin from You Don’t Love Me Yet, who avoids eye contact, curls around his electric guitar like a salted slug, and spends his days re-watching Fritz Lang’s Human Desire in a room “whose every surface was crazed with media,” searching for secret messages.
Above all, Lethem himself, whose collection of personal essays, The Disappointment Artist, had copped to the omnivorously obsessive geekdom his novels everywhere imply. There seems to be little in twentieth-century art, high or low, that he hasn’t absorbed and doesn’t have an articulate opinion about: not just rock and comics and sci-fi, but soul and jazz, Hollywood and the art house, modernist fiction from both sides of the Atlantic, even painting (his father is an accomplished artist). The volume’s penetrating but often candidly self-involved disquisitions on Star Wars, The Searchers, Cassavetes, Philip K. Dick, and much more finally suggest a person who saves his deepest emotional attachments for cultural artifacts. “Between marriages,” he confesses, “I’ve reached such fevers of acquisition that I twice resorted to sleeping on mattresses laid not atop a box spring but a pallet of cartons.”
Whatever the personal roots of Lethem’s compulsions in temperament and trauma, geekdom also responds to a wider history. It is not simply fandom and was not fully possible before the 1970s, the decade in which Lethem grew up. Its scholarly posture awaited the erasure of high/low distinctions and the rise of a popular culture that thought enough of itself to elicit a corresponding critical seriousness. (The emergence in the academy of film studies and the like is a parallel phenomenon.) All of a sudden it was intellectually respectable to spin out theories about Spiderman or I Dream of Jeannie. And not just respectable, but necessary. The ’70s also marked the moment when media culture reached a kind of saturation point, the age by which we found ourselves, as George W.S. Trow famously put it, within the context of no context. What Warhol intuited and Sontag theorized was now universal--and for children of the ’70s, congenital. All media, all the time: commercials, billboards, boom boxes, Muzak, cable; hooks, jingles, icons, slogans, logos. Marilla, in Fortress, is a jukebox of musical catchphrases. Lionel Essrog, the tourettic narrator of Motherless Brooklyn, spits a steady stream of cultural detritus. Geekdom resists the informational avalanche through the impossible strategy of seeking to master it--hence both its theoretical drive and the infinitude of its quest.
So it is with Tooth. Like Lethem’s alter ego in Fortress, Perkus is, or was, a rock critic. Like Lethem himself, he writes liner notes for Criterion Collection re-releases of highbrow film classics. Having made a minor name a decade earlier as an auteur of sidewalk broadsides, hybrids of cultural critique, guerrilla theater, and public art, he is now holed up in an East 84th street sublet, obsessing about Mailer, Brando, the typography of The New Yorker (“to read the New Yorker was to find that you always agreed, not with the New Yorker but, much more dismayingly, with yourself”), and just about everything else, doing battle against complacency, conspiracy, and consensus with scissors, glue, and copious amounts of cheeba. If he can just connect enough dots, he can figure out what’s going on behind the Potemkin flats of official reality.
Into his world and under the spell of his dialectical brilliance falls the novel’s narrator, Chase Insteadman, a former child actor who has been killing time since he was about fifteen. A third soon joins their cabal of all-night bull sessions, Richard Abneg, tenants’-rights tummler turned mayoral flunky, clinging to his street cred while working for the Man. Three guys, then, two of them essentially unemployed and a third resisting maturity with facial hair and a Richard Hell ring tone. Perkus is a virgin; Chase sleeps around. Like Reg Loud in “Interview with the Crab,” a 2005 short story, over forty but “still too young to be an adult”; like Lionel Essrog, well past his twenties but stutteringly stuck in lost-boy confusion; like Dylan Ebdus, stretching his umbilicus from Brooklyn to Berkeley--and yes, like their creator, as he is always the first to point out, and indeed, like just about everyone else in his (and my) generation (and the next one, and the next)--these men are failed adults, aging adolescents who still haven’t figured out how to grow up:
We were always … on the verge of some tremendous expedition, like Vikings spreading nautical charts across a knife-scarred table, laying plans for plunder. … We never budged from that kitchen, however, unless if [sic] it was to tumble out coughing into the fresh chill air, and around the corner, to pile into a booth at Jackson Hole for cheeseburgers and Cokes.
They might as well be stumbling out of a dormitory, except this time Lethem either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. In Fortress, Dylan confesses that “my childhood is the only part of my life that wasn’t, uh, overwhelmed by my childhood”; in You Don’t Love Me Yet, adolescence hits a wall of adult reality; but here Lethem takes the situation at its own self-inflated assessment, as charmed by all the hijinks as Chase is himself.
It seems that the allure of brotherly bonding is simply too strong for him, no matter that the whole of adulthood be demanded in sacrifice. A profound loneliness lies at the center of his work, a sense of “the ocean of space which surrounds each human life.” Comic-book panels, frames of celluloid, sidewalk slates, row house lots, city blocks: Fortress of Solitude--whose title, which comes from Superman, says it all--proliferates with images of self-enclosed adjacencies, where “meaning lurks in the gaps between.” In Chronic City, the images of disconnection shift: ice floes, apartments, the Upper East Side (that psychologically gated community, where all the characters live and almost all the action takes place), above all the island of Manhattan itself.
At a climactic moment, Chase and Abneg exchange confessions through the bars of adjoining jail cells--a scene that replays a passage in Fortress of Solitude, and that could stand as an emblem of Lethem’s vision of human relations. “We and you don’t know a thing about what I felt back then,” he writes about his boyhood communion with comics, “any more than I know a thing about what you felt.” Geekdom, after all, is a form of solipsism, even--Perkus has a nephew who is “on the spectrum”--of autism. Whether the loss of his mother be to blame for this irredeemable sense of isolation it boots not to ask, for the feeling is no less general now than our universal allegiance to Peter Pan. Indeed, the two go together. Maybe if we can hold off growing up for just a little bit longer, we seem to think, we can finally find the family that we have never felt we had.
Which is, of course, what’s going on in Chronic City. Chase worships Perkus like an older brother. Abneg, the responsible one, plays the daddy role. A fourth figure edges into their orbit, a woman named Oona Laszlo, a feisty, sarcastic celebrity ghostwriter, whose fast-flaring liaison with Chase does not prevent her from filling the kid-sister slot, the one girl admitted to the tree house. Like the car-service-cum-detective-agency of orphaned man-boys in Motherless Brooklyn or the rock band in You Don’t Love Me Yet, this bundle of unmoored souls constitutes the substitute family to which the book gives its heart.
The problem, however, is the same as before. Just as the novel whistles past the fact that its principal characters are all cases of arrested development, treating them like perfectly plausible adults, so does it ignore the meaning of their collocation--which is to say, of its own emotional needs. The final essay in The Disappointment Artist, which is also its most candid and moving, is called “The Beards.” The title refers to a group of young men, all bearded in the ’70s style, whom Lethem befriended after his mother’s death, but it also picks up the slang sense of the word brought back by Woody Allen in Broadway Danny Rose and since popularized to denote the companions of closeted celebrities: “A cloak on passions that those who required a beard might be unwilling to discuss or even consider.” In Lethem’s quicksilver reading of his own life, the notion becomes a master metaphor for all his important moves. His immersion in popular culture was a beard for high-art ambitions; his embrace of serious film and fiction was a beard for adolescence, a desire to get it over with before it even started; the beards themselves, those three young men, were a beard for his love for his parents. Most of all, writing itself has been a beard for loss, an attempt to avoid the real issue by talking about anything but. And yet in retrospect he sees that “I find myself speaking about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world.”
Chase, too, has a secret, which he contrives to confess in such a way that nobody hears him. Essrog hawks up bits of his psyche--inspired, garbled wordplay that no one else can understand. Art, Lethem knows, is an attempt to conceal by revealing, and reveal by concealing: to confess, as it were, inaudibly. “I want what we all want,” says Carl in You Don’t Love Me Yet, the novel’s one true artist, “to move certain parts of the interior of myself into the external world, to see if they can be embraced.” Chronic City puts the matter more urgently. Perkus, assembling his first broadside in years, places a picture of a polar bear stranded on a raft of ice in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Next to it, he lays a block of type reading thus:
Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them a part of the world’s experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished....
From the prison of isolation, the only escape is art. Yet the story, as difficult as it is, is not that simple. The confession Chase wants to both make and suppress is not--though he doesn’t know it--actually true. No one else can figure out what Essrog’s tic-blurts mean, and neither can he. Behind the secrets we keep from others are the ones we conceal from ourselves. “Before all my arrogant poems,” Whitman wrote, “the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d.”
So why, then, write at all? Because the quest to reach the real Me, doomed though it is, supplies the energy of artistic discovery. Fortress is mighty because it wrestles with Lethem’s dark angels. Chronic City is feeble because it everywhere avoids that confrontation. This is a book that seems to have no idea what it is really about. Its heart belongs to its stunted adults and the makeshift family that they cobble together, but its mind--its far-too-busy mind--is, like theirs, somewhere else altogether. The book has more beards than a Hell’s Angels chapter.
For I can no longer shirk the lamentable task of telling you about the plot. The baleful implications of the first sentence are, we quickly find, all too fully realized. Chase, it turns out, has a fiancé named Janice who just happens to be an astronaut marooned in space by a low-altitude field of Chinese mines. Oona is ghosting the memoirs of a sculptor named Laird Noteless, who specializes in hacking enormous ravines into the ground and is currently at work on a Memorial to Daylight in the financial district. Abneg, expelled from his apartment by a pair of eagles who’ve decided to nest on the windowsill, makes excuses for his Jewish billionaire boss and gets involved with an Armenian heiress named Georgina Hawkmanji. Meanwhile the whole city is in a funk from the Gray Fog that has been stalled over lower Manhattan for the past two or three years (the novel begins in 2004), a winter that won’t lift no matter what the calendar says and a giant tiger that’s been ravaging the Upper East Side from below ground and may have something to with the construction of a new subway line--calamities that even The New York Times War Free edition can’t elide, though compensation arrives in the form of a mysterious chocolate odor that some experience as a tone.
Are you getting this down? Good, because it all takes second place to the “chaldrons”--hypnotically beautiful orange vases that Perkus discovers on eBay and that set off a frenzy of bliss and greed among himself and his friends. And all this in the first third of the book, setting up some highly suspenseful questions: will Janice make it back to Earth? Is the “tiger” really an animal? What is the mayor hiding? Will our heroes track down a chaldron of their own? And most importantly--given the fact that none of these characters possesses a more than notional presence--does Lethem really expect us to care about any of this?
New Yorkers and others will recognize the plot as a dog’s dinner of topical concerns: Michael Bloomberg; the Second Avenue subway project, which has been playing havoc with local businesses; Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk who nests on a Fifth Avenue co-op and whose attempted removal raised an outcry in 2004; the maple-syrup smell that showed up the following year and has been traced to factories across the Hudson; even last year’s crane collapses, thumbed in late in the game. Not to mention gentrification, global warming, the financial crisis, the Internet, Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China, and of course--for what novel today would be complete without it?--September 11.
On this snarl of scaffolding Lethem attempts to erect some tall ideas. The gang discovers an online simulation game called “Yet Another World”--not “Another World,” “Yet Another,” as if there already were any number. “Something happened,” Perkus says, “there was some rupture in this city. Since then ... we’ve been living in a place that’s a replica of itself, a fragile simulacrum, full of gaps and glitches.” (That’s how the speech appears--Perkus has a wicked case of hiccups, in case we are having trouble getting the point.) Chase, chewing this over, eructs the following epiphany:
By recent measures the city was orderly, flush with money, a little boring, even. That was, if you trusted the complacent testimony of the millions who checked TigerWatch in the morning before donning their April snowshoes and subwaying to work as usual, then in the evenings filled the bars and restaurants, or stayed home to watch The Sopranos or the Yankees, speed-dialing to stir Chinese delivery bicyclists to flight. … The only conspiracy was a conspiracy of distraction. The conspirers, ourselves.
Comparable passages besprinkle the book, all tending to the same conclusions. The media is a lie, the world is a puppet show manipulated for the benefit of the rich and powerful, reality is unstable and personal identity along with it. We’re all just insteadmen, simulacra of ourselves--acting out our roles, oblivious, in yet another world.
This really is dorm-room stuff, ontology by bong hit, the kind of paranoia that Philip K. Dick specialized in and that eventually sucked him into its vortex. Perkus literally comes to believe that the world beyond Manhattan has become untenable, a fallout-strewn wasteland or Chinese slave dictatorship. One would suppose that Lethem means to satirize all this, especially since the last bit sounds like a Brooklyn boy’s parody of Manhattan provincialism. But the novel is utterly innocent of ironic inflection, and let’s not forget that Dick is one of Lethem’s heroes. As the story progresses, we discover with slackening jaw that Perkus’s view is essentially vindicated--if not as regards the business about the off-island world (which can in any case be understood as an allegory of individual isolation), then still with respect to his essential philosophical position. “Pincus Truth,” he is mistakenly called, and at the very limit of his raving. Only the mad, it turns out, are truly sane, just like R.D. Laing tried to tell us. Chase’s teenage TV show was titled Martyr & Pesty, with the ultimate suggestion that in his and Perkus’s long-running serial, the former plays the pest, the latter the saint who sufferers so that he may see the light. Perkus and Abneg were partners in crime at Horace Mann (once again, everything for Lethem comes back to high school). Les Deux Non-Dupes, Abneg tells Chase they styled themselves, the two non-dupes, their slogan, “Les Non-Dupes Refusé.”
If this actually were science fiction, we would at least know where we stood with respect to it all. Sci-fi sets up an alternative world, with self-consistent rules, to which our world is presumed to bear some kind of allegorical relationship. But Lethem wants it both ways, just as he did--it was the novel’s major weakness--in Fortress of Solitude. He wants realism, with the credibility it brings--wants us to take the world of the novel as a faithful copy of the world we know--but he also wants to stack the deck by deploying supernatural elements whenever he finds it convenient. In Fortress of Solitude, that meant a magic ring that conferred, now invisibility, now the power of flight. Here it means any number of things, popping up at random: endless winters, giant tigers, buildings that move when you’re not looking. And the novel’s psychology is no less capricious than its physics. If something’s on the loose destroying buildings, why isn’t the city in an uproar? If the Chinese have sown a field of orbital mines to destroy the U.S.-Russian space station, why aren’t we in the middle of World War III? Most annoyingly, Chase’s sense of inauthenticity--which is to say, his whole story--turns out to hinge on a degree of amnesia and susceptibility to psychological manipulation that are simply impossible to accept absent evidence of actual brain damage.
Some of this is transparently allegorical (global freezing equals global warming, of course), some of it has a vaguely satiric cast, like a third-rate version of Brazil (Lethem’s city adjusts to the depredations of the tiger just as the real city accepts the ravages of gentrification), and much of it is simply opaque, but all of it, in its wild inconsistency, creates a generic instability that renders the authorial contract void. We are willing to suspend disbelief, but we are not willing to be conned. Pynchon writes about paranoia and conspiracy, too, but he does it the hard way, laboriously pursuing the occult connections that might actually underlie the world we live in. Dick, at his best, gives us imagined worlds we receive with a shudder of recognition. But Chronic City is set neither in our New York nor a future New York, simply in one that Lethem makes up as he goes along. Given what’s happening in his world, Chase is right to feel reality slipping away from him. And we are equally right to feel that his world has nothing to say to our own. Les non-dupes refusé.
The cheating doesn’t stop there. Chronic City is written in the first person, Chase’s puzzled narrative--except when it isn’t. When Chase loses sight of his friend, the story simply follows Perkus, in the third person, until they meet again, with no explanation of where the second voice comes from. Chase is a former child actor with no higher education that we know of and no apparent intellectual interests, yet he produces language like this:
These guessing-words I find junked in my brain in deranged juxtaposition, like files randomly stuffed into cabinets by a dispirited secretary with no notion of what, if anything, might ever be usefully retrieved. Often all language seems this way: a monstrous compendium of embedded histories I’m helpless to understand.
Somehow I can’t imagine that coming from, say, Scott Baio or Danny Bonaduce.
But the surest sign that Lethem is flying with a depleted jet pack is the quality of his prose. To be sure, there are still some lovely aperçus, especially when he gets out of the house and onto the streets he sees so well. On the Upper East Side: “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.” On the cops at the scene of an accident: “Each player on this stage of chaos had a line or two they were made to deliver ad infinitum, while we, the audience, filtered among them, gathering these coupons like stamps in an album.” On Perkus’s encounter with a self-pitying private-school graduate: “He’d never been able to rouse his sympathy for anyone who’d gone to Dalton no matter how sulky they felt about it.”
But these are rare stops on an otherwise monotonous ride. Motherless Brooklyn starts like this: “Context is everything. Dress me up and see.” Fortress of Solitude starts like this: “Like a match struck in a darkened room….” You know how Chronic City starts, and the same tone, as flat as an old futon--joyless, humorless, forceless, lifeless--predominates throughout. Sometimes the prose is merely clumsy: “He pulled out a chair at his small, linoleum-topped table like that you’d see in a diner”; “He connected by his phone-line, which he transferred by hand from his living-room Slimline, and which bumped him offline if anyone rang”; “The hordes of new players arriving every day drove the ratio of chaldron-to-player scarcity continually through the roof.” Often, though, it’s amateurishly paraphrastic or overwrought, as if to slap itself awake. Tired eyes become “aggravated orbs”; single malt scotch, “amber poison”; Spiderman, “the blue-and-red superhero.” “The mystery of a building as grand as this one,” we read, “was as deep as anything locked in the tormented gazes of the taxidermied dead”; “I wanted to tell him to ease himself, not try to talk, but that would be as if to tell him to fold the only tent he’d ever set up on the windswept desert of existence”; and “this Warren Zoom [Chase’s childhood character] struck the viewer ... as possessing some quantity of life outside the cold frame of the screen, beyond the rigid limits of what shadow plays could be mounted within that half-hour frame in the usual attempt to placate, amuse, and sell what needed selling.”
This is sentimentalism, not sentiment--an effort to force or fake the emotional connection that Lethem has failed to establish with his material. A persistent sense of “insteadness” shadows the book. Just as its language announces more feeling than it transmits, just as its characters mime relationships that are more intimate than the ones they have, so do its intellectual concerns stand in for a more urgent--and in Lethem’s work, more familiar--set of anxieties. Chase is not the first of Lethem’s protagonists to suffer what the actor calls a “crisis of authenticity.” But this time we’re looking in the wrong direction. The novel’s preoccupation with the elusiveness of metaphysical reality is a beard for the elusiveness, for its privileged characters, of social reality. Of course Chase feels that his life isn’t real. It isn’t. He lives off a trickle of royalties from work he did in the distant past. Perkus is no different--subsidized, it turns out, by the family business. The characters float on a cloud of fine wine and cab rides, wondering where the world went. The Upper East Side, indeed. Dylan--the real one--has a few lines that Lethem undoubtedly knows: “And the princess and the prince/Discuss what’s real and what is not/It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden.”
The fictional Dylan was more forthright about the stakes. His “rage for authenticity” was rooted, he avowed, in Brooklyn, in the feeling that to don the cape of privilege and fly off to Manhattan and Stuyvesant, Vermont and “Camden” (i.e., Bennington), Berkeley and the Bay was to abandon not only the people he had grown up with, but ultimately also his true self. Beneath the ache of inauthenticity, then--beneath just about everything in Lethem--lies the circular labyrinth of guilt. It is liberal guilt, and in Chase’s hackneyed and entirely predictable scorn for the super-rich for whom he serves as parlor decoration, we detect the gravitational field of its displacement. But it is also--or really--something more: remorse not just for having more, but for having at all, for having needs, for having been born. It is the guilt of the child, the burden of the unpayable debt we owe our parents. It is grandiose, the other side of self-pity, and it is also unreal, a breeder of phantoms, always searching for a crime it never committed, always blurting a confession it can never complete. Fortress of Solitude plunged into this miasma and came out with art; Chronic City lets it linger like a vapor that obscures its own source.
Guilt’s double, of course, is innocence, and here we see a deeper sense to Lethem’s adolescent characters and postures. His protagonists, Chase among them, tend to be naïfs, sidekicks, dupes--passive victims of the world’s grown-up wickedness. But remember that his figures are not just young, they are somehow young and old at the same time. Reg Loud doesn’t just seem “too young to be an adult,” he also seems “far too old to be in his early forties,” as if withered by a pretense of guilelessness, Dorian Gray and his portrait superimposed on the same image. By dressing his work in sneakers and jeans--comic-book colors and pop-culture paradigms, sci-fi shenanigans and detective-fiction simplicities--by always backing away from realism’s self-incriminating awareness of the dirty human heart, Lethem makes the same disavowal.
“Innocence” means two different things, and one implies the other: if you’re callow, you’re guiltless. At forty-five, Lethem has yet to give us a single real adult relationship. And yet there is one little moment, in one short story, that hints at the knowledge--at the appetites--he works so hard to disclaim. “As I get older,” says the narrator, who resembles his creator,
I find that the friendships that are the most certain, ultimately, are the ones where you and the other person have made substantial amounts of money for one another.... My Hollywood agent is about my age, and when I talk to him I feel he knows who I am, because he helped make me who I am.
It goes by in a flash, but it makes us realize that Lethem’s beardless innocence may be his biggest beard of all. It is one thing to acknowledge loss, however painful, and quite another to confess to ambition, to envy, to greed.
Passivity and dependence call forth their opposites in the form of the hero--the defining figure, of course, of the comic book. The child dreams of superpowers, or else, of a savior. Heroism is not just action, it is morally unambiguous action--adult power without adult guilt. The drama of heroism and hero-worship plays out in work after work of Lethem’s corpus. (It is also playing out, not incidentally, in our president’s relationship to his young votaries, that legion of hopeful children.) Dylan worships Mingus, only one grade ahead but supernaturally cooler; Essrog worships Frank Minna, the small-time hood who saves him from his orphanage; Chase worships Perkus, the dauntless thinker who explains him to himself. And Lethem, we infer, worshipped the “beards.” For an oldest child, he has quite the younger-brother complex, yet the dynamic is readily explicable in generational terms. To grow up in the ’70s was to be fated to a permanent condition of younger-siblinghood: to worship the ’60s, that mythic time of heroic action, whether you wanted to or not--as Lethem, raised in a nimbus of hippie revolutionaries, had more reason than most to do.
The situation is beautifully captured in “Super Goat Man,” perhaps his best short story. The title character, born plain old Ralph Gersten, decides to become a superhero around the time that JFK is shot. (For once, Lethem smoothly meshes realism and the fantastic.) He never does accomplish very much, though, and after retiring to a Brooklyn commune, where the narrator remembers him from childhood, he takes up an academic post, teaching a course titled “Dissidence and Desire: Marginal Heroics in American Life 1955–1975.” Eventually, he is humiliated by a couple of frat boys and then, in his dotage, repudiated by the narrator himself. In short, a perfectly cunning allegory of the career of the counterculture’s pretensions to transformative action, and of the next generation’s relationship to them. It never was all that much, Lethem suggests, and we never were as impressed as you wanted us to be. And yet, here he is, still writing legends of the fall. Minna, Mingus, and Perkus: all of them end up smashed by the system one way or another, leaving their acolytes to pick up the pieces. Our heroes diminish us, yet we cannot live without them.
But what happens when you become the hero? Lethem’s work has been haunted of late by the figure of (as the title of his essay collection puts it) the disappointment artist--the creator who burns out early or never lives up to his potential in the first place. Edward Dahlberg, the mid-century American novelist whose portrait gives that volume its name, is one example; Mingus’s father, the washed-up soul singer whose presence looms over Fortress of Solitude, is another. In Chronic City, we meet such figures at every turn: Chase himself; Russ Grinspoon, “the lamer half of a well-forgotten seventies smooth-rock duo”; most of all, both Perkus and his number-one hero--for, Chase thinks, “that Brando had frittered away much of his prime gave them something in common.” You Don’t Love Me Yet was a minor failure; Chronic City is a major one. The boy who wanted to grow up so fast that he ended up feeling as if he’d never grown up at all has become a richly gifted artist who worries that his best years are behind him. His recent output gives us all too much reason to fear the same.
William Deresiewicz writes essays and reviews for a variety of publications.