Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Random House Audio, read by Mark Deakins)
That's right, audio book. Which seems appropriate. Because when listening to Mr. Deakins soar, sink, and hiccough his way through his recitation of the labyrinthine, pulpy narrative that Lethem teases out of the raw materials of millennial Manhattan, my mind's eye thought more than once, "Would that Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater of the Air had their shot at this one!" The clotted, spooky story, full of diabolical artistes, creepy mayoral aides-de-camp, monstrous giants, and cancerous space girls, all orbiting around a consumptive genius, was begging for the same crew that put together "The Shadow Knows," The War of the Worlds, and Citizen Kane.
Overwritten? (Over-spoken?) Certainly. The words gurgle, pop, and sizzle along like one of the lipid-laced Jackson Hole burgers that reoccur throughout, a tasty leitmotiv if there ever was one.
Not that Mr. Deakins did a bad job. On the contrary, he delivered, presenting an apocalyptic choir of characters in quirky cadences that did justice to the exotic -- and wonderfully contrived names -- Lethem cooked up for them: Chase Insteadman, Perkus Tooth, Oona Laszlo, and so, so many more.
You could call Chronic City a roman a clef about a parallel Manhattan, just a string theory twitch away from the one many of us are blessed, or, in Lethem's estimation cursed, to live within. Except that it's a roman a parler, but you get it. (The war-free New York Times is a truly marketable idea, I must say.)
Plot. A Bloombergian billionaire rules a city tethered to reality by the most gossamer of threads, clad in sinister Sulka robes. Eerie acupuncturists minister to stars from Charlie Rose to Benicio Del Toro (or their ilk, I can't go back and look it up cuz I listened to it.) All we need is Fu Manchu to complete it.
And that, ultimately, is this big, shaggy, rambling download of an audio book's triumph. I wouldn't be giving away anything if I told you that the Chronic in the title refers to a fiendishly potent form of hothouse cannabis titillating the haute monde of Fun City.
I also wouldn't be giving away anything if I told you I suspect that Mr. Lethem conjured up much of his fable indebted to a reasonable facsimile of such a substance, even if just in his mind. Lethem can tell tales, and has a hearty appetite for pulp as well as profundity. In fact, he has a deep understanding of how, especially in our time, these two are one and the same. Which is why his tale, far beyond merely a merry trickster joy jaunt, jabs a gnarly finger at so much hypocrisy, duplicity, humor, and evil lurking around the corners of today's (of all times?) circus that is Mad-hattan.
The name dropping and allusion dropping is deep, self-conscious, and over the top. It makes a salacious article in Vanity Fair seem like a 1950s "Welcome Wagon." But that is the dark charm of listening to Chronic City. As for reading it, I can't say. I do wish, however, we could all gather around the radio and listen to it, with acting and sound effects and baying dogs and crushing buildings and swelling Bernard Hermann music, Sunday evening after Sunday evening -- brought to you by Lucky Strike Cigarettes! - Ken Krimstein
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.