Reading Chronic City

If you’re not familiar with Jonathan Lethem, it might be good to get a sense of him before, or as you’re diving into, Chronic City.  You can browse around his author page here, where you’ll discover that he’s a prolific writer and reader of fiction, non-fiction, essays, and critical work on the authors he most values.  Famously, Lethem is fascinated with Philip Dick, a late 20th century writer who’s contributions to the public include the text that inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Spielberg’s Minority Report.  Dick hovers on the edge between science fiction and postmodern literature (for people who like a firm and definitive boundary between those two), and placing Lethem on that same edge might buy us some useful interpretive approaches.

Some of Lethem’s works have received intense critical acclaim (he won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999 for Motherless Brooklyn, and following critical and commercial success for 2003’s Fortress of Solitude, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005).  Chronic City, on the other hand, occupies a more ambivalent place in the critical reception. It was adored by one NY Times Book Review, but panned by the doyenne herself, Kakutani; lauded by author Hari Kunzru in BookForum, dismissed bythe Washington Post.

Your interpretive and meta-reflective reading practices, then, will become critical as you work your way through the book.  As you work through the characters, the events, the references, I’d suggest that you also keep your eye on the ball of “realism,” or, as Kunru notes:

At times, Chronic City is almost a caricature of the type of writing James Wood skewered as “hysterical realism.” The irritating names, the hyperactive plotting, the relative lack of interest in psychology, and the general atmosphere of conspiracy and connectivity are all hallmarks of a genre that (pace Wood) vastly expanded the possibilities of the postwar novel but has now ossified into a repertoire of gestures, most of which Chronic City seems compelled to repeat…The issue with Chronic City is not so much “realism” (which is in no sense a monopoly of books that lay claim to psychological depth or plausibility of narrative event) as affect. The “systems novel” (Tom LeClair’s useful term, lacking the pejorative connotations of “hysterical realism” while claiming much of the same territory) derives its force from a fierce intellectual engagement with the large-scale structures and networks that govern contemporary life. Often it is written explicitly against the humanist claim that the individual subject is the only window through which it’s possible to understand the world. Clearly, Lethem’s ambitions lie in this direction—his title asks us to focus on macro-scale phenomena and suggests a grand analysis.

To this end, Lethem’s novel brings us full-circle to Wood, and where we began our conversation 12 weeks ago.


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