Jonathan Lethem's last two novels 2003's Fortress of Solitude and 2007's You Don't Love Me Yet steered away from the sci-fi leanings of his early work. The talking kangaroos, post-apocalyptic telepaths, and alien hermaphrodites were replaced by flying children and mysteriously endowed songwriters. Okay, so pretty much everything the one-time local author concocts has some element of magic to it. Lethem's latest opus, Chronic City, is no different, offering up chocolate-scented fog, an unseen tiger that destroys whole buildings, and ancient "chaldrons" that may or may not serve with the help of strong dope and the droning guitarscapes of Sandy Bull as portals to other planes of existence. Even though it's set entirely in Manhattan, the book sprawls like a bored teenager, spilling profundities and confusions like so many Cheetos. Lethem delights, as always, in language, coming up with goofy names (Oona Laszlo, Georgina Hawkmaniji), brilliant metaphors (birds "interweaving like boiling pasta"), and absurd cultural jokes (a sitcom is titled Martyr & Pesty). What little plot there is serves to direct the eclectic cast of characters an aging childhood TV star with a fiancé lost in orbit, a stoned cultural savant, a hipster ghostwriter, and a squatter turned political fixer to wander New York's grimy streets and eat cheeseburgers, scour eBay, and wonder whether Marlon Brando is really dead (and if not, whether he can save New York City from the savages who now run it). Lethem has mentioned that Chronic City was influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney, and Alfred Hitchcocks Vertigo, which is only one of many things that could use further explanation when he's interviewed by Paul Lancour tonight.
Wed., Oct. 28, 8 p.m., 2009