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Lethem's Tedious, Maddening 'Chronic City'

Jonathan Lethem's eighth novel, Chronic City, is about as broken as a book can be and still merit occasional use of the word "brilliant." There are sentences so dazzling every few pages of this bloated and maddening work that you will find yourself stopping to reread them — like this beauty: "To live in Manhattan is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interweave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes that pavement demolishing workmen periodically wrench open into daylight and to our passing, disturbed glances."

Narrator Chase Insteadman is about to enter one of those squirreled-away worlds. A fatuous former child TV star, Chase coasts on the fumes of his celebrity, "an ornament to dinner parties" in the slick money-driven society of a (slightly) futuristic Manhattan. That is, until he meets Perkus Tooth, a walleyed, pot-smoking former rock critic who has stubbornly resisted the blandishments of the culture. Perkus can discourse learnedly (or so we are told) on everything from Vladimir Mayakovsky to Columbo, and Lethem presents him as a relic of a more intellectually vital time, when Manhattan was full of grubby, book-drunk Gollums rather than international socialites and power brokers.

But the idea of Perkus is more intriguing than Perkus himself, who emerges as a self-indulgent, crabby bore. Sadly, neither Lethem nor Chase seems to notice. The plot, such as it is, consists of Chase and Perkus smoking dope, talking about Marlon Brando and fixating on a magical vase called a chaldron, which they try to buy on eBay. Meanwhile a tiger — man-eating? mechanical? metaphorical? — stalks the city and Chase receives letters from his fiance who is, quite randomly and literally, stuck in outer space. Lethem also tries to dramatize the escapades of ancillary characters, like Richard Abneg, who works for a Bloomberg-like mayor, and Chase's lover, Oona Laszlo, a mopey ghostwriter.

All the names sound like riddles, which at first makes you think and, later, when you realize none of this is going anywhere, roll your eyes. The coy, muddled narrative swirls around aimlessly for 467 pages — pages so annoying and tedious that even Lethem's flashes of brilliance can't begin to redeem them.

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Jennifer Reese