Learning the value of book reviews

I’ve never been a big reader of book reviews. I suppose I’d rather spend my time reading books than reading about them.  Reading a bad review can obviously  save you from reading a bad book. However, it can also prevent you from reading a flawed book that is frustrating  but also rewarding in some small way. Had I read this New York Times review or this Washington Post review of Chronic City, the latest novel from Jonathan Lethem, I might have avoided reading it. Instead, I bought Chronic City without reservation. I knew the reader’s work well and assumed I would enjoy it. I was wrong. I hated reading this book. But I’m also glad I did. How is that possible?

Since I first encountered Lethem more than 11 years ago, I’ve always felt a special connection with his work. When I read Motherless Brooklyn I was living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood – the very same couple of blocks of Cobble Hill – where the book takes place. The protagonist, Lionel Essrog and his mentor Frank Minna had their private detective’s office on the same block of Bergen Street that I walked  every day on my way to the F train, which I took to Manhattan for my daily commute to work. I loved living in Cobble Hill and I loved that book. I had also always been a fan of post-modern detective fiction, like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which Lethem’s novel seemed to evoke.

Several years after I read Motherless Brooklyn, and long after I had left New York, I read his other great Brooklyn novel, The Fortress of Solitude. This book was even better. More complex characters, a more thought-provoking plot. So I didn’t hesitate to read Chronic City. Had I known what I was in for, I might have paused.

If you have read the reviews I linked to above, you have an inkling of what I’m talking about. Chronic City is a deeply flawed novel. The word “tedious” comes up a lot in many reviews. I did not enjoy reading it, but I couldn’t bring myself to put it down because of my loyalty to the author. The reviewers were right. This is a tedious book. It lacks any plot, which I find essential for any novel despite what some more experimental or avant-garde authors may argue.  I also hated most of the characters. The main protagonist and primary narrator, Chase Insteadman, is a cipher with a ridiculous name. He’s a former child television star who is living off residuals from his one big sitcom, living in a dreamlike Manhattan where he does nothing but go to dinner parties hosted by old money and nouveau riche New Yorkers. He enters a new phase in his life when he meets and starts palling around with Perkus Tooth, an obsessive and (I think) slightly autistic pop culture critic who spends most of the novel smoking pot, obsessing over some vases he’s found on eBay, and looking for profundity in pop culture detritus such as old Twilight Zone episodes and Marlon Brando movies. Chronic City is mostly about these two characters and the friendship they develop: Chase the cipher, who lacks any real sense of self through most of the book, and Perkus, who is the type of person I wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life, let alone for 467 pages of drug-fueled paranoia and pseudo-intellectual masturbation.

Despite the frustration I felt reading Chronic City and despite the book’s many failings, I’m also glad I finished it. I soldiered on, and over the last 80 pages it enthralled me. Here  Lethem stopped letting his annoying and cartoonish characters chew up scenery and wax on about inane subjects that none of us care about. Instead, Lethem introduced a crisis into the characters’ lives. He also ultimately unveiled several very interesting truths about the main characters, the New York City they were living in, and why many of their paranoid fantasies and the nagging sense of alienation they felt were extremely justified. I found myself loving those last 80 pages. But they didn’t make up for the 400 pages that I suffered through before that.

It’s no small coincidence that the book started to get good at the point where Perkus Tooth is forced out of his apartment and ends up squatting into an apartment complex for dogs. Yes, dogs. In one of Lethem’s precious flourishes, he’s created an apartment complex which some rich woman’s estate had paid to convert into something of a shelter for homeless dogs. The apartments are made up to look like human habitations, giving the dogs a sense that they are not in a kennel but in a home… and perhaps their masters will be home soon to take them for a walk. Perkus takes up residence with a dog named Ava, and the whole book takes a turn for the better. This is where the characters come into focus after spending hundreds of pages chattering about nothing at all. Instead ideas that they had alluded to in passing, such as a cloud that covers much of lower Manhattan (a reference to 9/11), start to take on some meaning.

I say it’s no coincidence that the book picks up steam at this point because the chapter in which Perkus moves in with the dogs was published as a short story in the New Yorker. I’ve also read several references that a short story about Perkus Tooth originally appeared in an anthology before Lethem expanded it into a novel. I haven’t read the anthology, but my sense is that Lethem originally wrote an inspired and excellent short story. He should have left it at that. Instead he expanded it into Chronic City and added a new narrator (Chase Insteadman, who is only a minor character in the original short story).

So, I hated reading this book, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. The book reviews I referenced were dead on. This is a tedious book that lacks plot and is stuffed with annoying characters. BUT, the last 80 pages are good reading… just not good enough to make up for the first 400. That’s why I hated reading this book but found myself happy that I stuck around until the end so that I could find that little nugget of goodness hidden under hundreds of pages of ill-conceived and mediocre execution.