Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City

Sun Nov 1, 2009

It’s still early, certainly, but none of the reviews I’ve read of this seem to understand its premise. There are acknowledgments of direct quotations in the back of the book, an unusual paratextual gesture, but a key conversation in it comes almost directly from an essay by Robin Hanson called “How to Live in A Simulation”. The paper is one of those rare cultural artifacts that instantly refutes any attempt at ideological analysis through proud transparency:

In sum, if your descendants might make simulations of lives like yours, then you might be living in a simulation. And while you probably cannot learn much detail about the specific reasons for and nature of the simulation you live in, you can draw general conclusions by making analogies to the types and reasons of simulations today. If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal it seems that you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look likely to become eventually rich, expect to and try to participate in pivotal events, be entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happy and interested in you.

Early on in the book, the apparent former child actor Chase Insteadman, who lives the virtues listed above quite well, watches an episode of Columbo that he was in with Perkus Tooth, about whom more in a bit. This episode starred John Cassavetes as an evil conductor, and, in the novel, dates from 1981, starring Insteadman and Molly Ringwald as the “spoiled teens.” When I first read the book, I was so unsure of what was identical with this world and what was not that I passed over this more-or-less in readerly silence. A quick trip to the relevant IMDB page reveals that such an episode did exist, but that it was aired in 1972 and, obviously, did not have Molly Ringwald in it nor was it directed by Paul Mazursky. Myrna Loy was in it, which is one of Tooth’s points of interest, however, as was Pat Morita. I haven’t seen the episode, but it appears from going over the cast list that there weren’t any children in the episode, at least not any who plausibly could have been teenagers. Is Steven Bochco’s presence significant? The plot device of Columbo’s imaginary wife, similar to that of Chase’s imaginary fiancee? (Since Perkus seems to want to guide Chase to this realization, this would seem somewhat plausible.)

Peter Falk is then described as being in The Gnuppet Movie, along with Marlon Brando, released around the same time. “Gnuppets” are important, and this is one of the ambiguous onomastic issues, because I suppose it’s at least somewhat possible that this is a fair-use copyright issue, or at least it intends to suggest itself that way to us. One of the major characters, Oona Lazlo, appears to be a ghost-writer, and two of her books were for a scientist named Emil Junrow, who seems to be a conflation of L. Ron Hubbard and Richard Feynman. Junrow has just died. We learn later from Laslow that Junrow was behind the idea of simulation theory, which is explained with reference to Nick Bostrom’s various notions and the Hanson paper quoted above on pp. 228-29.

Lethem seems to be interested in the overlap between the libertarian-inspired fantasy of the simulated world and the older nightmares of gnosticism. Tooth has prophetic (“ellipsistic”) insight into the true nature of things for several reasons, but one of them seems to be that he has (involuntarily) renounced the flesh. Mirrors and copulation are abominable, etc. Chaldrons, first seen in an office reproduction of a trendy acupuncturist who may be sent from beyond, blend this world with the other, a sub-simulation or a link to the simulating reality. We learn that a Second Life-like game called Yet Another Life features chaldrons as a designer-created object of priceless value in an environment where everything can be fabricated effortlessly. The designer of this game turns out to be the brother of the enigmatic Claire Carter, aide to Mayor Arnheim, whom we first meet at a banquet given by the Manhattan Reification Society. It is Claire who confirms to Perkus that the chaldrons have only a grail-significance in Yet Another Life and that Chase Insteadman’s fiancee, suffering from foot cancer in a space station rendered inaccessible by Chinese mines, is imaginary.

As Perkus, truth-haunted, begins to die, he reveals this to Chase:

“Something’s happened, Chase, there was some rupture in this city. Since then, time’s been fragmented. Might have to do with the gray fog, that or some other disaster. Whatever the cause, ever since we’ve been living in a place that’s a replica of itself, a fragile simulacrum, full of gaps and glitches. A theme park, really!. Meant to halt time’s encroachment. (389 [note that there are blank spaces in the original text, meant to signify Perkus’s ellipses, I suppose, which I didn’t feel like trying to reproduce])

After Chase confronts the Mayor with his suspicions, the Mayor tells him that “the secret protects itself.” He also thinks he loses a bit of his view. Janice Trumbull did exist, Chase thinks, and they were lovers in high school before she went to MIT and became an astronaut, only, Chase is sure he remembers, to lose her life along with the rest of the crew when their station hit the aforementioned Chinese mines. So the world forgets the war-related tragedies and can be manipulated into sentimentalism, a type of found or living drama. Through a type of reverse augury, birds watch the characters, or at least Chase comes to believe that they do. (Richard Abneg, a squatter-turned-fixer with a pregnant-sounding name, is eagle-haunted in the early parts of the book. Bald eagles, improbably enough, whose rapacious behavior is discussed in a nationally symbolic context.)

A few of the reviews of the book commented on its length, and, even an overly thematized tour of the major plot points such as the one offered above was surprisingly difficult to write without constant reference to the book in hand, after I had just finished reading it. The pace is exceptionally slow, and I think this is in part an attempt to show something like what might be called the “stickiness of the real,” or, in other words, that Lethem did not want to rely on the conventions of simulation narratives, particularly on the overt digitization tropes and rather tired metaphysics now reflexively associated with them. It’s really quite unusual that Chase reads Wodehouse and apparently has a good recall of other interwar British literature. (Graham Greene comes to mind for him at point.) This is so contrary to type that it seems purposeful, yet I can’t explain it. Philip K. Dick’s work, who Lethem has edited for the Library of America volumes, is the main source here, though Steve Ericsson’s Arc D’X is referenced by name (and this is outside the long bouts of list-making that Perkus engages in, mostly real figures with similar concerns).

I’m a bit worried about the tiger. It’s probably not a “juvescence of the year,” though its dual nature invites some type of religious/gnostic interpretation. As with many things I read, I would like to be able to read the editorial correspondence associated with this book. I wonder how much fact-checking went into the carefully fabricated references, for example, and I’m not entirely sure even now what to think about the Gnuppets.