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162 nonfiction Rivka Galchen Stendhal dedicates The Charterhouse of Parma to “the happy few,” a reference to a speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V in which the happy few are men lucky enough to be profoundly outnumbered in a battle. So Stendhal’s dedication is to those happy few soldiers who take on ridiculous—nay, fatal—odds, but also, at least in part, to those happy few who get the reference. This seduction through the evocation of all those excluded, all those who lack the cultural password, is the seduction sung from, well, a fortress of solitude. A Delphic invitation and siren song at once. That’s what comes to mind when I open up a new Jonathan Lethem novel. Likely the proudest quoter we have in literature today, Lethem wrote a particularly brilliant specimen of the art for Harper’s Magazine in 2007. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” is a collage of quotes from other places—though you don’t find this out until the end—with no passage wholly original to Lethem. Paragraphs here, phraselets there...from academic essays and chatty screeds and dusty old volumes of fiction itself. At the end of the assemblage, Lethem explains that he has modified the borrowed language throughout as he saw fit. Not much, though, and yet the parts stitch together into something that is singular, original, pure Lethem. We can see the same magpie originality in Lethem’s novels and stories, so often playing with genre, and this aesthetic is one for which Lethem has been much praised and In Between the Dream and the Doorknob: On Jonathan Lethem’s Fictions 163 author© Peter bellamy maligned. One could call this genre-play postmodern, but that would be a mislabeling, if for no other reason than that the wide overuse and abuse of the term postmodern have left the word utterly sere of meaning . Regardless of what you term Lethem’s singular sound, these moves between original and “original” language, between plain speech and speaking “trippingly on the tongue,” constitute the foundation of Lethem’s art, and in his most recent novel, they’re also the walls, the windows, the bedspreads, and the trinkets found in forgotten drawers. Chronic City, Lethem’s eighth and latest (and I’m going to go ahead and also say greatest) novel, is simultaneously a comedy and a tragedy and an elegy and a madly encoded map, printed on paper that you suspect has a third side. Chase Insteadman, a former child actor living off 164 ecotone the fumes of his early fame, narrates; he’s engaged to an astronaut lost in orbit who sends him romantic missives from space, missives which are published prominently in the city newspapers, especially the War Free Editions. So there’s that. On earth, Chase has two main friends: Perkus Tooth and Richard Abneg. Perkus Tooth is the novel’s schlemiel hero, minorly famous for his 1970s collaged broadsides . More important, though: he suffers from migraines; he exults in “ellipsistic” moods, which may be just the inverse image of his migraines; he seems to have read, watched, and listened to everything of cultural importance; it’s unclear how he makes a living; and he’s deep into what he believes is an important conspiracy involving Marlon Brando, Gnuppets, and chaldrons, chaldrons in the novel being little-known mesmerizing vaselike things seen only in images and auctioned off for enormous amounts on eBay. (Also regarding Tooth: no, it isn’t inappropriate for his silly name to call to mind the Pynchon line about tooth decay not necessarily entailing a conspiracy of bacteria.) Tooth’s odd foil is Richard Abneg, a onetime outsider political activist now making his living as an adviser to the power insiders. The three friends spend much of their and the novel’s time smoking dope at Perkus’s rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side.* Oh, also by the by, there’s a giant tiger terrorizing Manhattan, and Richard seems to have some secret knowledge of it that he won’t share. All that is just the surface story, believe it or not. Not that surfaces should be disparaged. In the architecture of Chronic City...


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pp. 162-180
Launched on MUSE
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