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piiskoor

Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

Currently reading

McGlue
Ottessa Moshfegh
Knife Fight and Other Struggles
David Nickle
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon
The Good Lord Bird
James McBride
Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (New Edition)
Derek Bok
Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem
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Complete Novels
Dashiell Hammett, Steven Marcus
Chronic City - Jonathan Lethem Coming into this novel as a Lethemite, a devotee, I'm not sure if my experience reflects a slight disappointment which new readers might dismiss as fanboy grousing about a superior novel OR a slight appreciation which new readers might dismiss as fanboy rationalizing about an inferior novel. I can only say that this novel was:

a) line by line, paragraph by paragraph, a warehouse of prose delight -- a middle-aged wealthy couple, the husband "a desiccated toddler, age floating unfixed; [the wife's:] fifty-some years . . . pinned to her like a police-artist's sketch, or an archaeologist's reconstruction . . . .";

b) generally engrossing, despite a general lack of Plot (opting, instead, for a lowkey thrum of paranoia and emotional upheaval, a minor-chord quest narrative of sorts, amidst a sea of details and structurally-cohesive yet digressive sidebar stories);

and, c) utterly ambitious. This last element deserves some expansion, without spoilers: Lethem is trying to write a Philip Dick novel wholly grounded in the quotidian, or a Saul Bellow novel with its feet dipped below the slipstream fantastic, or... fuck all that: seeking to ungerrymander the seams and alleys and neighborhoods which seem to subdivide the city of Literature, to see common cause in the quest for a sense of reality *and* of the fantastic, of a grounded identifiable grappling with the stuff of life and a desire for escapes and escapism. He is writing a novel where reality is a problem, where Truth is at bay, and yet he sidesteps the cul-de-sacs of postmodern alienation -- or maybe he's writing a novel where the recognizable problems of our reality (cranes falling, a war raging overseas, love lives confusing and confounding) are *and* are not tropes for our own personal traumas, yet sidestepping the cul-de-sacs of the new realists' narcissism and parochialism.

In some ways, this is a 9/11 novel, carefully counterposed to stuff like Clare Messud's Emperor's Children, where that geopolitical event becomes a lever which vaults the narcissistic upperclass protagonists into more truthful, honest lives. What hooey. Lethem never lets his narcissistic upperclass off the hook, resists redemption--the towers are glimpsed only through a vague Grey Fog bedeviling a borough of Manhattan, they haven't fallen, this is fiction, yet we hear and see and feel countless hints and echoes (that Fog, an artist whose metier is giant holes in the ground, a rampaging tiger or "tiger" able to destroy buildings randomly) -- by keeping the fiction central, by keeping the problem of "fiction" and "reality" central he keeps us attentive both to the very real ways fantasy invades and shapes our consciousness all the time and to the ways a fantasy of "realism" can fallaciously assuage our reliance upon fantasies of life. He really has in mind a complex hybrid literature, works deviously and diligently to remake the novel using a great stew of ingredients stolen from a history far richer and stranger than just "postmodern," "genre," "realist" ....

And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. I enjoyed the novel, but I find its project as interesting as--or more interesting than--its performance. It's long -- too long? And, push come to shove, I find myself constantly recognizing the various tastes in the dish (oh, there's a dash of De Lillo, then a whiff of Paula Fox, and isn't that some Pynchon?), instead of relishing the meal.

I was disappointed by his last novel. And I admit that this one doesn't bowl me over as some earlier works had. But it's an eminently impressive try-out, a novel novel, a new track he's taking. Imagine what comes next, where he might be going...