One of America’s finest novelists explores the disconnections among art, government, space travel and parallel realities, as his characters hunger for elusive meaning.
Long associated with the borough of Brooklyn, Lethem (You Don’t Love Me Yet, 2007, etc.) shifts to Manhattan in the indeterminate near future, ringing changes on the speculative science fiction that first earned him a cult following. Combining deft reportage and cultural insight with postmodern invention, he imagines a time and place where it is possible to opt for the “WAR FREE EDITION” of the New York Times. Manhattan’s citizenry is terrorized by a tiger on the loose, but the marauder may be a media invention, a government construct or a machine. First-person narrator Chase Insteadman, an erstwhile child star, still lives off his residuals, as well as the refracted fame that makes him a welcome guest at the city’s finer dinner parties. That fame has been recently underscored by the tragic fate of his fiancée, Janice Trumbull, a scientist-astronaut suffering from cancer while orbiting in space; her heartbreakingly witty letters to Chase are covered extensively in the media. Chase seems as disconnected from his surroundings as Janice is from earth, yet his life changes after a chance meeting with Perkus Tooth, a marijuana-smoking cultural critic who once enjoyed some renown as a writer for Rolling Stone. Tooth’s sidekick is a wisecracking ghostwriter named Oona Laszlo whose work calls the very idea of identity into question; her relationship with Chase threatens to dispel the romantic myth of the child star and the astronaut in which the city apparently has so much invested. All truths and realities are open to interpretation, even negotiation, in this brilliantly rich novel. Chase is the hero Manhattan deserves, we see, when Tooth describes his friend as “the ultimate fake. A cog in the city’s fiction.”
Lethem’s most ambitious work to date, and his best since Motherless Brooklyn (2001).