I don’t know if it’s related to fatherhood, but in the past year I’ve read a lot more fiction than had been my habit. My two favorite novels from this past year are China Mieville’s The City and the City and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. (I only just realized I never reviewed The City and The City, and as it has been a while since I read it, I won’t do a full review here. Rooted in the hard-boiled detective genre, it’s a tantalizing mindfuck of a book, involving a pair of Eastern European cities that actually overlap, and where the populace conducts a consensual hallucination to ignore the other city (and if they break the spell, they’re taken away). This construct allows Mieville to pursue ideas on urban existence, many revolving around the idea of “unseeing”, an act that citydwellers unconsciously do everyday.)
Chronic City is also a mindfuck, though in a different way. Set in a parallel-universe Manhattan (the 9/11 bombings have been replaced by a mysterious gray fog; The New York Times publishes a war-free edition; every character has a strange, but awesome name), our guide and narrator (the book is mostly first-person) is Chase Insteadman, a former child actor engaged to a marooned astronaut. In the opening chapter he meets Perkus Tooth, an apartment-bound pot-smoking contrarian intellectual driven by conspiratorial thoughts at the fringes of pop culture, and gets caught up in Tooth’s associations, both human and cognitive.
I really enjoyed the book. Mostly, it’s a lot of fun. Lethem constructs a oompelling simulacrum of Manhattan, and teasing it out provides endless amusement. The mind-trip is well executed. And Lethem has evolved into a remarkable prose stylist, a master of metaphoric language, someone who can really paint with words in a way I haven’t read in a very long time.
If you like trippy fiction; if you’re a pop culture and literati junkie; if you already find Manhattan otherworldly, Chronic City is definitely worth a shot.