Chronic City

My 2010 Year in Books is off to a good start with Jonathan Lethem's witty, sparkling Chronic City.

Chase Insteadman, a blandly handsome former child star, has been drifting through Manhattan's social scene for years, blissfully insulated from reality by the never-ending array of galas and an endless stream of residual checks from his former sitcom. His benign, numb existence is brought back to life (with a defibrillator, so to speak, rather than something as soft and kind as a divine touch) by an encounter with Perkus Tooth, a former radical and renegade pop culture critic. Aided by generous amounts of pot and fueled by Perkus' harebrained conspiracy theories, the two pinball through a Manhattan sub-world Tooth opens for Insteadman. Chiefly, there's Oona Laszlo, the alluring and closed-off ghostwriter, and Richard Abneg, the blustery, reluctant power-broker for the unseen mayor of New York. Together, Insteadman's new group tries to unravel the peculiar mysteries bedeviling Manhattan, including an escaped tiger that ravages buildings, an untraceable chocolate smell and a gray fog that never lifts over Manhattan's financial district. Insteadman's awakening is set in a comical magical-realism world, but his search for something of permanence and enduring value in a snow globe of sorts where everything seems temporary and shifting will sound familiar to any reader who's hit his or her own doldrums in life.

Lethem's writing is impossibly fresh, crisp and imaginative ? a feat made all the more amazing considering how the quality remains consistent throughout all 476 pages. Lethem's imagery is remarkably vivid, his adjectives unusual, his tone always a successful-yet-gentle suggestion as to what the reader should feel. Lethem is a master of the one-liner, and his prose glitters with so many brittle, clear lines it's like watching a meteor shower committed to the page.

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