Chronic City by Jonathan Letham

In which Lethem tackles paranoia and conspiracy theory, in other words, DeLillo and Pynchon territory.

There’s a wonderful book struggling to get out of this rambling oblique farce of a novel. The full blooded obsessive vigilance of conspiracy theorists would make a great subject for a modern novel – the watchdogs who watch the watchdogs, an informed elite calling to account a sinister informed elite at the other end of the political spectrum. I watched a video yesterday where a guy examined frame by frame that famous shot of the woman hanging outside the window of the Bataclan. He was looking for evidence that the Paris shootings were another false flag event whose sinister purpose is to scare populaces into eventually accepting police states and fascist politics. In the broader spectrum of things his reasoning came across as absurd but isolated within the footage itself there was something suspiciously stagecrafted about what we see. You understood then that what we believe depends entirely sometimes on the base of some deeper emotional need. Fascinating though was the sense that the guy espousing his theory believed he was right at the heart of history, a major player in the shaping of the future. A man who has found his raison d’etre. I couldn’t help seeing there the ideal character for Lethem’s novel.

Unfortunately in Lethem’s world the conspiracy theorist, Perkus Tooth, isn’t intriguing or located at the cutting edge of monumental world events. His intellectual suspicions, fuelled by dope (Lethem’s take on conspiracy theorists is too often founded on lazy clichés) are mostly irrelevantly absurd – whether or not Brando is really dead for example. So there’s quickly a sense Lethem is making fun of conspiracy theories which seemed to me a cheap and easy way to dismiss a compelling phenomenon of our times (DeLillo and Pynchon are both far more subtle and thought-provoking and many layered in their examinations of this subject). After all, do we really believe without some misgivings the official versions of the Luther-King and Kennedy assassinations? Or, to take it several steps further, do we believe it was the Jews or communists who burnt down the Reichstag? The politics of power is a dirty dog-eat-dog business. There’s bound to be sinister undertakings involved. But Lethem is going to ignore the sinister for slapstick. He’s found an easy target for mockery and he’s damned if he’s not going to take full advantage of it. Another cop-out is the novel is set in some kind of alternate universe where Lethem can further indulge his self-indulgence for the absurdly implausible. And this was the problem for me. This is a novel of brilliant surfaces but little depth. There was a much more daring and ambitious novel hived in his material but he rejected it for a madcap convoluted haul through event after event of inconsequential absurdity.

If you’ve never read Lethem before I’d recommend Motherless Brooklyn where his stylistic brilliance doesn’t, like in Chronic City, overcompensate for his lack of intellectual daring or vigour. He’s a very good writer but this novel convinced me he’ll never be quite in the same class as DeLillo or Pynchon. johnathan-lethem1

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