The new novel by Jonathan Lethem takes place in a modern Manhattan slightly askew from our own. It’s the same Epcot for aesthetes that the borough has become in the years since Mayor Rudolph Giuliani bleached Times Square and tamed crime, but there are differences, like a giant, and likely mechanical, tiger raging through midtown, and the existence of pop-cultural artifacts with no equivalent in our world, such as films that don’t appear in the IMDB listings for Marlon Brando and Werner Herzog — at least not in our parallel universe. The novel is titled Chronic City, and true to its name, it’s a marijuana-infused story of cultural paranoia. Key among those paranoids is Perkus, a walking encyclopedia of film, pop music, and politics who spends his time weaving conspiracies from stray threads of coincidence. These insights also manifest themselves in the form of “cluster” headaches, which lead him, in the following scene, to visit an acupuncturist known as Strabo:
Thin as threads, each with a tiny flag at their end, they entered his body at various points, neck and wrists and shoulders, painlessly. Only a hint of tightness, a feeling he shouldn’t move suddenly, confirmed Strabo had used them at all. Then Strabo lowered the lights and switched on some music, long atmospheric tones that might have been vaguely Eastern. “To someone like you this CD may sound a bit corny,” he said, surprising Perkus. “But it’s specially formulated, there are tones underneath the music that are engaging directly with your limbic system. It works even if you don’t like the music particularly. It’s inoffensive, but I personally wish it didn’t sound so much like Muzak.”
“Okay,” said Perkus, just beginning to see that he was expected to reside with the needles a while.
“I’ll be back for you in half an hour. Practice breathing.”
“What if I fall asleep?”
“It’s fine to sleep. You can’t do anything wrong.” With that, Strabo was gone. Perkus lay still, feeling himself pined like a knife-thrower’s assistant, listening as an odious pan flute commenced soloing over the synthesized tones, promising a long dreadful journey through cliché. Here Perkus was, supreme skeptic and secularist, caught naked and punctured, his whole tense armor of self perilously near to dissolved. How had it could to this?
The first chapter is available for download at amazon.com.