Chronic City

A while ago I read Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, but failed to write about it here for some reason. I thought I’d rectify this because it’s an interesting book, and it sheds some new light on the theme of vertigo which has been irritating my mind for some time now.

Generally speaking it’s a good book, though it has had some bad reviews for being oddly-shaped and meandering. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lethem is brilliant at treading the line between the real and the surreal, a sort of American magical realist, I suppose, though in this case he does stray a bit towards the end. The novel centres on Chase Insteadman, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped in space; he wanders around New York, befriending an eccentric man called Perkus Tooth – but I don’t want to say too much in case I spoil the details.

Part of the plot revolves around their attempt to acquire a chaldron: a type of stunningly beautiful Greek vase that sells on eBay for ridiculous amounts of money. These vases are not what they seem, but they elicit in the characters a strong sense of vertigo – they spend hours staring at pictures of these beautiful objects. Lethem describes this vertigo very well, but it has a different tone to that which I have been discussing before on this blog. Chaldrons make the beholder desperately, vertiginously covetous – everyone wants to own a chaldron, at any cost. This moves me to add possession as a layer of vertigo (alongside destruction and open-endedness). I don’t think it’s present all the time, but I think the urge to possess whatever induces this sense of vertigo is, confusingly, an aspect of the vertigo itself. Similarly to the MacCaig quote below, where those who are possessed by a landscape possess it in turn, a vertigo-inducing object can sometimes both possess the beholder and excites in them an urge to possess. This can only really hold for what Benjamin would call auratic art, where the uniqueness of the object seems to add to its value. But the mind-bendingness of that duality, especially when experienced subconsciously, would certainly induce a sort of vertigo.

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