Jonathan Lethem, like David Foster Wallace, is a writer whose work has been identified as second-generation postmodernism, although finally it has little in common with Wallace’s fiction other than a general disinclination to adhere to conventional storytelling norms. Lethem’s fiction as well is often linked with Pynchon and DeLillo as postmodern precursors, but in Lethem’s case their “postmodern irony” is mediated through the influence of science fiction, especially the work of Phillip K. Dick. This amalgamation of high postmodernism and popular literature is taken to be his signature variation on postmodernism in fiction, although much of his early work would seem to be more accurately characterized as straight science fiction. Beginning with Motherless Brooklyn (1999), Lethem began to publish books more likely to be categorized as “literary fiction” but continued to include elements of popular fiction (detective fiction and comic books as well as science fiction).
In a review of Lethem’s Chronic City (1999), Hari Kunzru describes the postmodern element in this novel as in part deriving from the author’s implicit acknowledgement that “he’s writing belatedly” and, further, the accompanying signal that he “wants us to know he knows.” This is indeed a very postmodern gesture, and perhaps in conveying this sense of belatedness Lethem is engaged in the same sort of strategy John Barth had in mind in positing a “literature of exhaustion” that exploited the “used-upness” of fictional form to generate new forms. However, where Barth and his fellow metafictionists forced a new attention on form, style, and narrative strategy, Lethem in Chronic City settles for vaguely surreal machinations of plot (an “alternative reality”) and loudly “colorful” characters (most of them given obviously Pynchon-derived names). While it might be debatable whether the greatest influence on a book like this ultimately is a version of postmodernism drawn from “the writing that inspired Lethem to become a writer” (as Kunzru puts it) or the demands of fantasy and science fiction, there is finally nothing that could be called formal innovation in Chronic City, nothing that really challenges readers to examine their assumptions about the novel as a form.
Lethem’s reputation as an experimental writer thus seems entirely based on his incorporation of the narrative conventions of genre fiction into novels that have otherwise been generally accepted as “serious." The plot devices of detective stories and science fiction allow Lethem to ostensibly bypass the requirements of ordinary realism, providing for an approach that blends caricature and pseudo-fantasy to produce what can best be described as whimsy. Whimsy is not a productive mode of either postmodern or experimental fiction, and in Chronic City it leaves an impression of aesthetic timidity. As William Deresiewicz says in his review of the novel, Lethem “wants realism, with the credibility it brings—wants us to take the world of the novel as a faithful copy of the world we know—but he also wants to stack the deck by deploying supernatural elements whenever he finds it convenient.” Thus the New York City portrayed in the narrative needs to be recognizable enough as New York City that we are able to associate the events and themes with the real place, but not so much that the author can’t introduce runaway tunnel robots, an illusory space mission doomed by the presence of Chinese space mines, and snowfall in August.
This sort of controlled fantasia can’t really be what the postmodernists had in mind as an alternative to conventional realism, nor is it credible as a revision or reorientation of postmodern challenges to inherited practice, an attempt to extend the reach of postmodern experiment into a different era and changed circumstances. It implies that postmodern experiment was simply a strategy designed to undermine the principle of verisimilitude, so that any work not strictly observing the rules of traditional realism could be called “experimental.” And while Lethem’s work is consistent with much postmodern fiction in that is essentially comic, the comedy of a novel like Chronic City is much too gentle, too shy of the more corrosive humor of the postmodern comedy of Pynchon or DeLillo. It doesn’t so much lack “real satiric bite,” as Kunzru maintains, as it never rises above mere satire, a relatively mild critique of post-9/11 New York under Bloomberg. The satiric purpose, in fact, predominates in a way that sets this novel apart from the postmodern comedies of such writers as Pynchon, John Barth, or Donald Barthleme, which don’t attempt to “correct” behaviors and institutions in the manner of conventional satire but portray human behaviors and institutions as resistant to amelioration (but no less deserving of laughter for that).
Chronic City’s satire is portentous enough that readers would certainly be justified in concluding it is an attempt to “say something” about America in the 21st century, but the novel hardly conceals any deep meaning not made apparent through its choice of satirical targets. The story of the relationship between narrator Chase Insteadman, former child actor, and Perkus Tooth, former bohemian intellectual turned pothead, allows Lethem to canvass his “alternative” New York from top (Insteadman is something of a mascot for the city’s high society types) to bottom and to adjust his satirical focus accordingly. That the purport of the novel’s themes does not go much beyond this surface satire is actually in its favor, as we aren’t subjected to the kind of tedium the exploration of “ideas” in fiction usually entails. In this way Lethem is finally faithful to his postmodern predecessors: to the extent Barth or Pynchon or DeLillo incorporate ideas, they do so as inspiration for formal or narrative devices (“entropy” in Pynchon, for example) rather than abstractions with which to “wrestle.”
However, Chronic City nevertheless suffers from its own kind of tedium. It never attains the structural or stylistic vitality required for us to suspend our disbelief in its plot contrivances. The narrative drags along, its narrator’s language leaden and unnecessarily prolix. The narrator is himself an unengaging figure whose status as a blank slate on which his friend Perkus inscribes a more capacious understanding does not make him a compelling character over the course of a 450-page novel. Perkus himself is much less compelling than Lethem wants him to be. He’s an essentially stock countercultural type, and his recurrent cluster headaches and other mental problems make him seem more pathetic than heroic.
Lethem’s fiction in general is not without its pleasures, both stylistically and in its humor. Much of it displays a lively enough imagination, even if Chronic City ultimately falls flat. (And it collapses from an excess of satirical ambition rather than too little.) But precisely as a work that seems to be one of Lethem’s most ambitious, this novel does illustrate the way in which a writer clearly influenced by postmodern experimental fiction expresses that influence by muting it, softening its edges while remaining “quirky” enough that his work generally avoids being identified as “mainstream” literary fiction. Lethem circumscribes the most radical implications of the legacy of postmodern experiment, implications that potentially undermine all assumptions about fiction as a literary form, by translating its carnivalesque comedy into ordinary satire, its narrative innovations into eccentric fantasy, its linguistic play into a more or less conventionally literary prose style (although again not necessarily without its pleasures, nevertheless). Perhaps it could be said that Lethem is attempting to enhance the legacy of postmodernism by making it more universally appealing, but at best what we get is really a pastiche of postmodernism, one that may represent the creative sum of Lethem's important inspirations yet never finally goes beyond a kind of comprehensive aesthetic paraphrase of the originals.