CHRONIC CITY, by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 467 pp., $27.95.
'Paranoia is a flower in the brain," asserts the incredibly named Perkus Tooth, nexus of all the strange happenings that run through Jonathan Lethem's very strange novel "Chronic City." Lethem waters and fertilizes that flower with every paragraph of his new book, which tracks a lonely former child star named Chase Insteadman across the cramped wasteland of moneyed New York, suggesting tinfoil hatfuls of bizarre conspiracies that threaten never to come to fruition.
Tooth, Chase's ally and his impatient guide to this alternate-universe Manhattan, is discovered in the bowels of the boutique DVD distributor Criterion Collection, arguably the only place besides his apartment where Perkus seems at home. That apartment becomes a focal point: a place where Perkus holds court for Chase, Chase's lover/antagonist Oona Laszlo and political fixer Richard Abneg, reluctant stooge of billionaire mayor Jules Arnheim.
With his parallel Manhattan to play in, Lethem ambles comfortably into satire and creates some truly awesome, surreal jokes. Take the Woodrows, for example, hosts of the first swanky party we attend with narrator Chase: The couple live in a house inside the lobby of a chichi Park Avenue apartment building, with a stoop next to the elevator banks. Lethem elaborates: "This house-within-a-building functioned to enunciate to dwellers in those apartments, elevator-sloggers who imagined they'd come to one of life's high stations, your indoors is our outdoors, that's the exponential degree between us. Distinction from merely heedless wealth was tough to obtain on Park, but the Woodrows had purchased some."
Lethem has off-the-wall brainstorms like this every few pages. There's the novel's online role-playing game, for example, which comes up in a discussion of whether the characters might all be automata in a computer program: The title is not "Another World," but "Yet Another World." Real or unreal, worlds abound.
In satirizing self-centered ultrarich narcissists, though, Lethem ends up populating the novel with such disagreeable, hypocritical people that it's hard to care about any of them except Perkus. Resourceless hero Chase is the biggest problem: At one point he decides not to look for a missing, possibly abducted friend simply because no one else will join him. When a minor character misremembers him as "Chase Unperson," a few readers will probably join Perkus in snickering derisively.
Still, there are pockets of air in this suffocating selfishness: Exiled from his rent-controlled apartment, Perkus begins taking care of a three-legged pit bull named Ava, having retreated to what may be the novel's supreme microcosm of self-involved New York irony: an apartment building renovated by a dog lover and thus inhabited solely by strays. Literally inside a satirical device, Perkus is free to indulge in totally unironic, artless love for a potentially unlovable (at the very least, unprepossessing) animal.
This setup follows a pattern that keeps showing up in contemporary fiction: irony / more irony / still more irony / sincerity. In order to be sure that they won't get mistaken for sentimental slobs, serious authors apparently now have to force-feed us our own emotional disconnectedness until we long for something real.
That's a fitting epitaph for "Chronic City," I guess, though it really does become moving late in the game; really is painfully alive and sympathetic to the hurt that simply living can inflict on us. This novel posits a real emotional poverty at the center of all the lives it chronicles - each person has created their own little world-within-a-world, and is horribly lonely within it. Except maybe Perkus - he's been lonely long enough that he seems anxious to keep Chase as a friend. Lethem makes us hope for Chase, not just that he'll find answers but that he'll be saved from indolent luxury. At the book's end, he seems damned - and worse, only slightly aware of it. That's too much to bear, frankly, and it makes you want to exit the book, to push the lid off the senior Russian doll and run away from such a cruel prison - even as you wonder if you're still inside.