If you were to cast Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City as a movie, for the part of former child television star Chase Insteadman, you’d be smart to hire Joseph Gordon-Levitt—the dimples alone, but also, 3rd Rock from the Sun. In the role of Insteadman’s best friend, the loveable kook Perkus Tooth, a character actor is called for: a Steve Buscemi or a Julian Richings, not Bill Murray—too obvious—and not Philip Seymour Hoffman—too Synecdoche, New York; Chronic City is more like Simulacra, New York. Carey Mulligan could play the part of Oona Laszlo, the waify ghostwriter who gets Chase’s rocks off, and as his absent astronaut girlfriend—Scarlett Johansson. We’d only ever hear her (bosom conjured by that signature rasp) reading little ha’s ha’s down from the chronically starless sky of our city setting, Manhattan.
Chronic City already feels like several films you’ve seen before. Set in the most cinegetic American island, it stars a cabal we all wish we knew, or maybe already do: a vacuous free-floater, “riding the exhaust of my former and vanishing celebrity, the smoky half-life of a child star,” and a cultural conspiracy theorist of some marginal repute (a Jenny Holzer style broadsheeter with a sense of SAMO’s poetry, Hunter Thompson’s vitriol, and Pauline Kael’s populism).
The book is a bromance in love with three key things: 1) the mind meld of 4:20-friendly friends, 2) under-dude culture (Bellow, Brando, Herzog, Hitchcock, Mailer, Žižek, and “The Gnuppet Show”), and 3) Manhattan in late capitalism. It’s about, as per Lethem, “the interpenetration of unreality into daily life.” What’s real? What’s fake? Whatever. Those are just words after all. What’s felt and loved, though, in Chronic City, that’s what’s worth your time.