Chronic City Book Review

Are you debating reading Chronic City? Maybe you have heard mixed reviews about Johnathan Lethem’s novel and want to know who to believe? Or are you curious and want to know more? No matter the reason that brought you here, we have the answer for you! 

Chronic City Book Review

Deciding on a new book to read and whether it is worth reading is tricky, especially when you have previously heard mixed reviews. And with books like Chronic City, you can find yourself spending hours reading conflicting review after review, never knowing who to believe. 

But that is where we come in! Today, we are here to save the day and have the only Chronic City review that you need to read! Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about this book, including a synopsis, detailed review, and an FAQ section to answer all your questions. 

Chronic City Synopsis 

Let’s start with an overview of the book. Chronic City follows narrator Chase Instreadman, a former child star living off the residuals from a 1980s sitcom.

Currently, his tragedies are spread across the tabloids, his fiancee and childhood sweetheart, Janice Trumbull, is trapped in a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station. 

Janice sends him heartbreaking and rapturous love letters from the Space Station, adrift and tapped into the Earth’s stratosphere. Janice’s diagnosis of cancer and the worry of supplies running low add urgency and heartbreak to her letters, which are printed for the world to see.

Chase too, we see, is adrift, but in a vague routine interrupted only by Upper East Side dinner parties. 

That is until he meets Perjus Tooth, a pop critic whose riffs are fueled by cheeseburgers, high-grade marijuana, and a longing for meaning. Perkus’s paranoia draws Chase into a different Manhattan, where he finds himself questioning what is fake, and real, and who is complicit. 

Along with Ooona Laszlo, a ghost-writer with some serious self-loathing, and Richard Abneg, a hero of the Tompkins Square Park riot who finds himself working as a fixer for the Mayer, Chase, and Perkus try to discover answers to the mysteries of Manhattan. 

The 467-page novel takes readers on a journey through Manhattan with Chase, with letters from Janice appearing every 100 pages or so, interweaving the several plots that run throughout the novel. 

About The Author

Jonathan Lethem, the author of Chronic City is an American author, born in 1964. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lethem released his first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, in 1994.

The novel broke the barriers of genre, merging science fiction (If you like sci-fi themes, also check out Bad Monkeys) and a detective story featuring talking kangaroos, futuristic versions of the drug scene, and cryogenic prisons. 

The novel was later dubbed by Lethem a ‘delirious’ experience. It did well, reaching the finals of the 1994 Nebula Award and coming first in the ‘Best First Novel’ category of the Locus Magazine reader’s poll. 

After the movie rights were sold, Lethem quit his job working at bookstores and spent his time writing. He went on to publish two more novels and a collection of short stories in the late nineties. 

He moved back to Brooklyn in 1996 and continued to publish novels set in Brooklyn. In the early 200s, he worked on poetry and edited two anthologies and a novella.

Chronic City is his eighth novel, which came after backlash surrounding his desire to revive the character Omega the Unknown from Marvel comics. 

He intended to do so without the participation of Steve Gerber, the Omega co-creator. This was later resolved and the series was published in monthly issues from October 2007 to July 2008. He would later face claims of plagiarism when Chronic City was published. 

Lethem argued the book was heavily inspired by the work of Philip K. Dick, Saul Bellow, Charles G. Finney, and Hitchocok’s Vertigo.

His views on plagiarism were explored in greater detail in his 2007 essay, ‘The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism’ where he defended plagiarism and wanted to see a return to the gift economy across the arts. 

Lethem continues to write, with three of his works being adapted into films and many of his books reaching the bestseller lists.  

Review Of Chronic City 

So, what did we think of Chronic City? Well, we enjoyed it! The 467-page novel is a little slow in parts, but where Lethem shines is the several plots that run through the novel. Janice’s letters are printed for us to read every 100 pages or so and are nothing short of brilliant. 

Her letters tell us about the Russian crew struggling with feelings of despair, the botanist sneaking bees from the space station garden to sting Janice and aid her pain, and the devastating feeling that runs throughout them is executed beautifully.

The devastation is seen in all its glory here, whereas in other parts, these feelings are diluted. 

The letters are so strong, and a shining part of the novel, that they were later produced as a standalone story in the New Yorker, called ‘Lostronaut’. 

The rest of the novel reads as a hazy, paranoid, confusion moving around Manhattan. Although this means you might struggle to read or keep up with the novel, it does an outstanding job of portraying all aspects of Manhattan.

We see the glitz and glamor in the Upper East Side dinner parties and we see the gritty, drug-fueled side through Perkus and his adventures with Chase. 

The story begins as a genial and spacy story, but it darkens into something more downbeat. The transition of the story takes it from something that might seem odd, into a dive into human life, entertaining readers along the way. 

There are plenty of humorous and thoughtful riffs on pop culture, stoned philosophizing, and art that is clever, without alienating readers. The book is best described as wacky, with some of its elements providing the idea that the truth is slippery and elusive. 

The book stands the test of time, though. Its exploration of conspiracy theories has become an increasing part of our culture. Whether you read the book when it was first released, or now, you will find this an interesting theme! 

Another interesting aspect of the book is the sense of time. Time is vague and there are many interpretations as to why. It could be to represent the vagueness of society, or it could be to give the novel a timeless feel.

Of course, the pop-culture references within the novel do contradict the desire for it to be timeless. 

Recognition For Chronic City 

Chronic City made it to The New York Times’ Best Books of the Year list in 2009, an impressive feat for the novel. Chronic City also has a cult following, with many of Lethem’s fans reading and re-reading Chronic City! 

Drawbacks Of Chronic City 

Of course, it would not be a review, if we did not consider the drawbacks or negatives of this novel. Chronic City has several plots running through it which do intersect well. However, the plot takes a while to get going. This is a slow-moving novel, one that could have been condensed. 

At points, it feels as though it was rambling. Part of this could be down to the narration, but on the whole, parts of the novel feel long-winded and hard to get through. 

Another criticism of the book is that while the first half of the book is fully formed, the second half feels less formed. The observations seem more like empty punch lines and Perkus’s conspiracies aren’t committed to fully.

Because of this, it can seem unclear why we should follow him down these rabbit holes. 

Final Thoughts 

And there you have it, a detailed book review of Chronic City. Lethem’s novel is out there, full of wacky elements, niche references, and intriguing characters that reflect the wider society of Manhattan.

While the plot can feel slow in places, Janice’s letters are beautiful works of prose that shine through. If you like Lethem’s novels or short stories, it is worth reading Chronic City! 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Before you leave us today, be sure to check out our brief FAQ sections to get the answers you need to your last-minute questions! 

Is Chronic City Worth Reading?

Yes, if you are a fan of Lethem’s other work, it is worth reading Chronic City. The novel is a little different from his other work but still maintains the style he is known for. If you have enjoyed his other novels, then Chronic City might be for you! 

It is also worth reading if you have never read any of his other works. Chronic City is considered a good introduction to his work. It is one of the easier books to read and can show you what to expect from his other books! 

Is There A Sequel To Chronic City?

No, there is not a sequel to Chronic City. The novel is a stand-alone book like most of Lethem’s work.

Sophie Andrea