- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

By Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, $27.95, 480 pages

The more American fiction remains the same, the more it changes. (The reverse is of course equally true.) From the birth of our republic through years of world wars, independent and hardy souls as dissimilar as Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, Cather’s Antonia Shimerda and Hemingway’s Robert Jordan have presented iconic images of courage and survival.

But global conflict brought clearer apprehensions of fragmentation and peril, and postwar generations wrote accordingly — in Kurt Vonnegut’s wry deconstructions of equilibrium and heroism, Thomas Pynchon’s flamboyant dramatizations of paranoia and dehumanization and Ralph Ellison’s reimagining of second-class citizenship as literal invisibility.

Still, there was more than a hint of Mark Twain’s avuncular charm in Vonnegut’s pessimism. And even the devilish Pynchon has shown alarming signs of mellowing, in the family-inflected tragicomedy of “Against the Day,” perhaps in the mellow nostalgia that tempers the mordant poetics of his current private eye caper “Inherent Vice.”

And a new generation of novelists seems to have inherited this double vision, resulting in a contemporary flurry of accomplished and challenging novels which, while acknowledging that our planet may be heading for a transformative encounter with the Something Out There that seems to invite and threaten our explorations, find reason for optimism in the stoical integrity of people who manage to care about others, believe they themselves matter and mean something and aim to rebuild whatever appears consigned to fall apart.

Case in point: Jonathan Lethem, the wunderkind urban surrealist who began his career with futuristic and intergalactic noir (e.g., “Gun, with Occasional Music,” “Girl in Landscape”) enriched by sly respectful allusions to a broad spectrum of books and movies — and hit his stride with ambitious depictions of his own loved-hated turf in the acclaimed “big” novels “Motherless Brooklyn” and “The Fortress of Solitude.”

Mr. Lethem, who might be described as Robert Coover or Don De Lillo with a really good collection of classic sci fi novels and rock cds, enters new territory with his current novel (his eighth in 15 years) “Chronic City.” This time we’re in Manhattan, during an environmentally and otherwise challenged near future time, when a grayish fog of uncertain provenance blankets city streets, a tiger is rumored to have escaped from is zoo and soulless entrepreneurs work to reverse every progressive entitlement since the birth of rent control.

Enter former child actor (now living on residuals from his tv series) Chase Insteadman, a handsome do-nothing restored to celebrity by the plight of his fiancee Janice Strumbull, an astronaut imprisoned in space (aboard the International Space Station) due to the interference of flying objects identified as China’s, that render her craft motionless.

Chase finds some solace in a bizarre friendship with Perkus Tooth, a freelance — i.e., unemployed — cultural critic, who formerly reviewed music for Rolling Stone, and now inveighs against the collapse of civilization and the passive enthronement of inauthenticity. We’d expect an “insteadman” to be his target, but Perkus and Chase together become a future-contemporary Mutt and Jeff (or perhaps a survivalist Vladimir and Estragon, or Abbott and Costello).

“Chronic City” is superbly imagined and quite often wonderfully written. But there’s too much of it. Even when astonished by Mr. Lethem’s inventive powers (as I was, repeatedly), the reader struggles to assimilate this unruly novel’s clamorous energies. Still, when we encounter such raffish wonders as the New York Times’ daily “war free edition published for people tired of bad news, or the city’s ebullient billionaire mayor Jules Arnheim (part Bloomberg, part Giuliani), we know Mr. Lethem has lost none of the zing on his fast ball. Masterpieces may well loom in his future.

In two novels published earlier this year by writers of recent emergence and growing prominence, we find evidence that even in the midst of chaos and uncertainty the human power to act responsibly and engage challenges still stubbornly asserts itself. NBA nominee Dan Chaon’s second novel “Await Your Reply” manipulates issues of identity crisis and theft in an absorbing narrative that gradually, cleverly plaits together three stories featuring Middle American everymen and — women.

College dropout Ryan surrenders himself to a con man claiming to be his real father, and drifts aimlessly into a life of crime. Orphaned teenager Lucy runs away with her history teacher, and into a loveless, pointless “affair.” And well-meaning Miles seeks his estranged twin brother Hayden, a schizophrenic and probable psychopath with whom reunion and reconciliation are impossible. What Chaon accomplishes by uniting these several quests speaks volumes about the paradoxes of identity, intimacy, and survival. “Await Your Reply” offers a deeply disturbing, yet somehow hopeful journey, for Chaon’s characters and readers alike.

In “The Great Perhaps,” Chicagoan Joe Meno (whose acclaimed early fiction made him a small-press sensation) analyzes the trials of a uniquely dysfunctional family as reflective of the country’s wary, cautious mood during the pivotal election year of 2004. Paleontologist Jonathan Casper and his wife Madeline distance themselves from the present day through his search to discover a giant deep-sea squid believed by other scientists to be extinct, and her researches into avian family dynamics — despite Jonathan’s paralyzing lifelong fear of clouds and Madeline’s fear of almost everything else.

Their teenaged daughters dutifully rebel, through Amelia’s strident “revolutionary” political activism, and Thisbe’s uneasy mixture of devout Catholicism and incipient lesbianism. Meanwhile, paternal grandfather Henry, lonely in a crowded nursing home, regrets his own failures of courage and tenacity in letters addressed to himself, intended to be read by Jonathan after Henry’s death.

Flashbacks and confessions alike reveal the Caspers’ history of cowardice and failure to act decisively, as intricately constructed images of submergence and flight suggest their potential capacity to accept complexity and uncertainty, perhaps to even fight for resolutions of their fears and conflicts. What Mr. Meno makes of his people’s conjoined weaknesses and strengths comprises another building block in our new fiction’s developing maturity. The world, as Wordsworth declared, may be too much with us, late and soon. But the best of us, real and fictional, know that while time is of the essence, it also represents opportunity. The trajectory of these three fine novels turns slowly and surely away from introversion, pointing forward, and, just possibly, also upward.

Bruce Allen lives, reads and writes in Kittery, Maine.

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