Frame of Reference

Chronic CityI’ve been struggling to find a frame of reference for my review of Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. One of the themes of the book is the very transmutability of frames of reference, which makes it all the more difficult to apply one to the story. I even attempted to read Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse, an author who is repeatedly cited in the text, but did not profit from it. I was able to identify a suitable song by U2:

I was lost between the midnight and the dawning
In a place of no consequence or company
3:33 when the numbers fell off the clock face
Speed dialling with no signal at all

“Unknown Caller” is a good fit, but it requires its own frame of reference rather than providing one. Chronic City is replete with pop culture references, but they have been distorted to the point of being barely recognizable. Lethem is holding a mirror to New York City, but the mirror is warped. Chronic City also contains an abundance of drug references, primarily to marijuana. Some are implicit, such as one possible interpretation of the title, while most are explicit use by the point of view characters. This only heightens the surreal “through the looking glass” sensation. I felt agitated while reading it, as if Lethem’s writing is itself a form of illicit stimulant. Like a dealer, Lethem is guilty of possession with the intent to distribute!

Chronic City follows Chase Insteadman, the former child actor, through his life-altering acquaintance with Perkus Tooth, a former counterculture soothsayer. Chase and Perkus share fixes and fixations with Richard Abneg, a former activist turned fixer for the mayor. Rounding out this expansive social circle is Janice Trumbull, an astronaut stranded in orbit who is only present in the letters she writes to her fiance (Chase), and Oona Laszlo, a ghostwriter who is not present in her writing. Each character negates their own identity, casting off frames of reference along the way until the baffled Insteadman finally comes to terms with his relation to the people around him. Lethem writes the story so brilliantly that we are left wondering which is more warped, the city or its reflection?

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