Jonathan Lethem's ambitious new book is a warped computer game, a Real Life alternate universe full of corridors and doorways that open up onto esoteric lore, secret histories, and quirky spins on reality a warren where the narrative burrows down in increasingly irregular diversions. Its central concern is our perception of truth, and how that perception is molded by our obsession with celebrity, contemporary art, the obscure byways of the internet, and the hollowness at the heart of human relationships. Marauding tigers, meanwhile, bring chaos to the streets of Manhattan.
The central character is that ultimate has-been, the former child actor. He lives off residuals from an old TV show, and continues to act, in one way or another, as the celebrated fiancé of Janice Trumbull, a dying astronaut lost in space. Chase is locked into his own lonely orbit, a character written into the city's narrative as a recurring name in a slightly skewed but recognizable social scene. That is, until Perkus Tooth, a critic and conspiracy-theorist, enters his life, with his riffs on popular culture and obsession with among many, many other things transparent fetish objects called chauldrons.
Tooth is one of Mark Deakins' many memorable characterizations in this recording he comes across as halfway between Bartleby the Scrivner and The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy. Deakins succeeds in painting each character with a light and unobtrusive touch, bringing life to characters that, on page, could easily appear as ciphers. Throughout Chronic City, reality is riddled through with simulation, and vice versa; Deakins' performance anchors the listener to some semblance of factuality, and makes us care enough to follow the narration through the shifting sands of authenticity. This is a universe where hacks and ghost writers create a "muppeteer's fiction", and it's thoroughly in keeping with Lethem's style that one of the more affecting parts of the book Janice's letters back to Chase turn out to be not quite what they seem. Nevertheless, Deakins delivers them without irony or ersatz sentimentality, and his integrity is of considerable benefit to the story.
Towards the end of Chronic City, Lethem's skill with language is finally matched with his control of the plot, and the two strands gel, bringing a sense of urgency to the quest for the real. Dafydd Phillips