Thursday, July 28, 2011

Chronic City

One review of this book describes the main character, Chase Insteadman, and his astronaut fiancee, Janice Trumbull, as both being "adrift." That's the best way to put it, I think. Jonathan Lethem, the author, grew up in pre-gentrification Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and has written at least two novels I know of about those hard-luck streets. Here he's taking on a very different type of subject matter: Manhattanites who have sold out, come unglued, or, as someone else described it, gone adrift.

Chronic City isn't a self-involved meditation on privilege and the lack of meaning in modern life, though it can seem so at first. It's about how modern life in Manhattan, and maybe the rest of the U.S., is driven by nothing more than a desire to be entertained. In Insteadman's Manhattan, The New York Times publishes a "war free" edition filled with updates on a tiger that's said to have escaped from the Central Park Zoo, and dispatches from space, where a tragic group of astronauts are floating forever with no way to get home.

Neither I nor Lethem is the first person to reflect on how New York City, center of so much that happens in the world, can often seem like nothing more than an amusement park for the insanely wealthy, shockingly idle, and impossibly privileged. To say anything more would be to give away events that happen more than 200 pages in.

Monday, July 11, 2011


A few days ago, a New York Times blog published this post, about Times' writers favorite novels. A former journalist myself, I shouldn't be surprised there's so much overlap between their lists and mine. Mine, if it existed. How does one pick five favorite novels? If I could make a top-ten or top-twenty list, though, it would include The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, A Visit From The Goon Squad, Infinite Jest, and maybe Franny and Zooey and Anna Karenina. I prefer On Beauty to White Teeth and A Widow For One Year to Owen Meany, which I haven't read and doubt I ever will due to the eye strain-inducing way the dialogue was written.

Reading this list was like flipping through an old photo album. I remembered a college professor harrumphing about the baseball team's loud get-pysched music in the class where For Whom The Bell Tolls (which I didn't care for) was discussed. White Noise is also a college memory; I first read it in an honors seminar for a philosophy class. I can see how someone would think it was overrated, but I find myself thinking about it and referring to it 11 or 12 years later all the same. I can't separate Remains of the Day (god I love that book so much) from the memory of the last summer I spent in Ithaca, in a cramped and devestatingly charming studio apartment without proper window screens, and with no money whatsoever, working an unpaid internship at City Hall and a night job at the local paper. Graham Greene -- nerd camp, summer, 1995, Alanis Morisette and Green Day and not being old enough to drive and hating it. Invisible Man -- the shoebox of books my uncle salvaged from the end of a library sale and mailed to me from Michigan. That's how I got The Awakening too, now that I think of it. Anything by Henry James reminds me of the time my best friend and I both tried to check Washington Square out of the library at the same time, just a few months into knowing each other, 14 years ago.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the book of moving to New York.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is the book of being here, no longer a recent arrival.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Sports Night

There are weeks when I have too much to think about to do a lot of recreational reading. When I have time during those weeks, I like to lie around watching The West Wing or 30 Rock and petting the cat.

This week the show of choice is Sports Night, a largely forgotten early Aaron Sorkin gem that takes place where I spent my formative years: the newsroom. The year was 1998. Bill Clinton was still the president. The World Trade Center (featured in location shots in every episode) was still standing. "Journalism" was both a reasonably practical thing to major in and something one could do for a career. Irony existed, but it was okay to be without it too. Caring about things was permitted and sometimes even encouraged. People were just starting to use email and cell phones for practical day-to-day communication. The world was full of possibility and un-dashed hopes. Or so I remember it ...

Though on the other hand, Netflix instawatch wasn't invented yet back then. You had to go to the "store" to rent "videos." Hard to picture, isn't it?