SURVIVOR: the simple art of murder (raymond chandler)*
CHALLENGER: chronic city (jonathan lethem)


the thrill of recognition you get from a novel that really roots around in a place you know well is a rare treat. i wanted so badly to find the san francisco in lisa lutz's spellman books that joe and i actually took the muni out to the philosophers club, an old bar in our first neighborhood, and quizzed the bartender about her (they'd never met). i've read a handful of manhattan novels** over the last few years, but i have yet to find my mysteries of pittsburgh.*** jonathan lethem has turned in some fine work about brooklyn (i loved both motherless brooklyn and the fortress of solitude), and i've been all kinds of excited to see how he'd handle my island, as it were.

lethem devotes quite a bit of time to regions (the upper east side) and issues (construction of the second avenue subway) i know very well, as it happens, and it is indeed thrilling to see those things through him (he's not rose-colored glasses, but he's something like a holga: everything is a bit more intentional, a bit sexier.). like raymond chandler's, his imagery can be immensely satisfying ("the green-gray sneakers like mummified sponges glimpsed within a janitor's bucket."); a monied dinner party sequence in the first hundred pages won me over completely. i knew those people, twenty years and several million dollars ago. he also writes three-legged pit bulls well. i've known a few of those, too.

lethem gets into a bit of trouble when it's time to add mystery to the mix. his narrator, former child actor chase insteadman, is unreliable because he says he's unreliable; in fact, as written, he seems a bit too keen.
These guessing words I find junked in my brain in deranged juxtaposition, like files randomly stuffed into cabinets by a dispirited secretary with no notion of what, if anything, might ever be usefully retrieved. Often all language seems this way: a monstrous compendium of embedded histories I'm helpless to understand. I employ it the way a dog drives a car, without grasping how the car came to exist or what makes a combustion engine possible. That is, of course, if dogs drove cars. They don't. Yet I go around forming sentences.
what chase does or doesn't realize about himself, his friends, and manhattan (plus a number of stoned conversations about culture, conspiracy, and marlon brando that enraged michiko kakutani is the novel's bulk and its fulcrum, so the plausibility of his cluelessness is rather important.

speaking of michiko kakutani's rage, she's pretty upset about lethem's goofy names (pynchonesque!) and magical realism (a bit helprinesque, i'd say). i forgive lethem his absurdism, for unlike pynchon's, his characters aren't wholly "plasticky;" they're types, sure, but i give a damn when one of them suffers. the physicality of perkus tooth, the mentor character whose rants are supposed to drag chase into the real world, is in some ways more tragic than anything he argues: tooth never stops sounding silly, but the way he falls asleep on a sofa kills me. the final scene, dependent though it was on a few plot twists i found kind of tiresome, revived me and killed me again. that lethem nailed something about manhattan in it...doesn't bode well for me and the neighbors, does it.

VICTOR: lethem. he makes a few missteps, but he wants it more - and his footwork is as fancy as chandler's.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you read a novel that's representative of your city, or one that was way off?

02 does michael chabon get pittsburgh in the mysteries of pittsburgh?

03 how do you feel about characters with faintly ridiculous names?

04 do you like magic realism in contemporary novels? in which novels does it move and/or annoy you?

05 do you agree with kakutani's review?

06 is obstinate dust (in chronic city) infinite jest?

07 is the grey fog that's settled permanently over lower manhattan a fitting translation (in lethem's alternate manhattan) of 9/11?

08 what novel, if any, says "new york" to you?

*previous round here.

**mark helprin's myth-a-riffic, turn-of-the-century-ish winter's tale (1983), don delillo's cosmopolis (2003), the tale of a limousine ride across midtown, and great jones street (1973), a much older novel about fear and loathing in the east village.

***which could be a horrible caricature, for all i know (i've never been to pittsburgh) - it just felt lived to me.


LPC said...

I loved Winter's Tale. I liked Motherless Brooklyn. Maybe, 20 years ago I was more capable of love for a single novel than I am now, with more under my belt. Books written by people with huge verbal capabilities have to find some way to factor that capability into the story. Worked well in MBrooklyn. Did it work OK here?

In terms of books representing my hometown? Heaven help me the day someone writes a scathing modern novel, or a laconic emotive novel, or any sort of novel, about the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. Where would it be located, figuratively?

kidchamp said...

there's a nighttime-in-the-snow scene in chronic city, one i can't describe without serious spoilers, that actually made me like winter's tale more; parts of WT (i think, mostly, what i read as chauvinism) frustrated me, but other parts (that white horse!) were pretty incredible.

i hate being predictable, but a well-written animal buys my love like that.

ETA: on san francisco, i can't believe i forgot about vikram seth's the golden gate. it's been awhile, but oh, the sonnets! i quite liked that book.

Rachel (heart of light) said...

I haven't been to Pittsburgh, so I can't claim an opinion, except that I think that might be my favorite Chabon book. Maybe. It's tough to decide.

And, I like magical realism in novels. Way more than I like long dream sequences, which drive me nuts. I am not interested in other people's dreams, be it in novels, movies or television. Do you know what I mean? I prefer straight up magical realism to authors trying to sneak in some magical scene by calling it a dream. I am not a psychologist, so I shouldn't have to interpret other people's dreams.

Now I'm so worked up that I can't even answer other questions. Except that, living in Los Angeles, it's hard to find a novel that captures the way I feel about the city. I'll have to think about that one.

jacob said...

01 it's not fiction, but didion's essay "some dreamers of the golden dream" is set in the inland empire (more specifically, the west end - ontario i think), so close enough to san bernardino. interestingly, the story, which is about a sensational murder and ensuing trial, happened right around the time my dad joined the public defender's office in san bernardino, and he remembered the case and most of the major players involved. i think he thought it was a bit melodramatic (the story, not the trial). so...B for accuracy, but A+ for descriptions of the santa anas.

02 only went to pittsburgh once, so can't say other than yes, there are some pretty serious hills in both the book and the real pittsburgh. also, i am pro-pittsburgh (and anti-philadelphia, but we'll save that argument for another day).

03 i don't know, it didn't take me that long to get tired of "judith prietht" in broom of the system. but i suppose pynchon gets a pass for longevity at that type of thing, and lethem for this clearly being a send-up of pynchon.

04 jeez, you ask a lot of questions. when it's atmospheric and/or doesn't take itself too too seriously (murakami, lethem) that's fine. when it's a BIG METAPHOR or a ghost (allende) it's wearying. i don't know, though - is this really magical realism in chronic city? lethem's been doing sci-fi-ish stuff for awhile.

05 no.

06 yes.

07 yes, when combined with the fact that most (all?) of the action takes place well north of lower manhattan. there's a large physical and emotional distance from lower manhattan, in addition to the fog.

08 invisible man - ralph ellison; um...fortress of solitude - jonathan lethem

kidchamp said...

@rachel: i might be with you on that as my favorite chabon. there were parts of the yiddish policemen's union that i really loved, but there were some really clunky parts as well. on los angeles books, i really liked toby barlow's sharp teeth (man, my poetry slip is really showing today). it occasionally zeroes in on LA, with werewolves, as angel did with vampires. dream sequences i dislike; sex scenes i pretty much always hate. this is partially because i'm a huge prude.

@jacob: the last tiger was magical realism, i think. that's the one that felt really helprin to me. on the fog, when it was first described, i admit i thought lethem was just talking about the sort of work they do and the hours they keep. i've met people who look the way that first guy was described. then again, most of them are editors and attorneys. what do i know?

baby jo said...

i second the 'sharp teeth' mention -- i loved it, not just because it is set in los angeles, but because there were a few really beautifully written lines describing the weird werewolfgirl-dogcatcher relationship. and i'm cheesy.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: Rick Moody's Garden State is way off in representing Denver. He didn't even set it there.

02: He gets a kind of loveable wreck of a pothead college teacher and the surrounding flotsum of his life pretty well in Wonder Boys.

03: It works in Martin Amis novels, and has practical real world applications. (Are you holdin'? Did Holden Caulfield come to the party...?)

04: Nawww. I'd rather plunge into sheep dip.

05: Everything she writes is sheer moonstruck lunacy, or contains some graphic descriptions of a dreariness such as we do not remember to have met with before in marine literature.

06: Is Eve Frame (in I Married a Communist) Claire Bloom?

07: Good as any?

08: Paul Auster's New York Trilogy sure doesn't. New York can't possibly be that useless. Auster is awful, and deserved the laugh out loud demolition performed by B R Myer in his book A Reader's Manifesto (also a truncated article). Let's go with The Cavett Show with Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner by Norman Mailer.

kidchamp said...

@milkmaid (re: 01) denver terrifies me. this is 15% a two-day visit in the early nineties and 85% the DON'T CALIFORNICATE OUR STATE bumper stickers i remember from high school. a strident people, colorad...oans?

(re: 02) the errol flynn sequence in wonder boys the movie gives me the giggles like few films before or since. it shames me that i haven't read the book yet.

(re: 03) my husband had a roommate at oxford named om ("resistance minus planck's constant," he'd explain). i'd like to say hilarity ensued, but in truth he just transferred to an empty room in the library and om would flip the communal TV to "gandhi" every time he entered the common room.

(re: 06) i'll take that as a yes.

(re: 08) new york can be pretty useless; the last few pages of chronic city, on the contracting patch of sky and how we make do, told me things about myself i really didn't need to know.