Each time I talk about two of my favorite books this year, I find myself discussing what people wanted from them as much as the books themselves. I adored them both, but both seem to need positioning.
Take Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. It’s a novel of not-quite-real New York, in which a former child actor becomes friends with an obsessive fanatic/critic, threaded through with surrealism, a second-life-type game, esoteric cultural discussions, a romance or two and questions of identity and self. It is everything a novel can be: funny, smart, puzzling, engrossing, layered. It is very Lethem-ian, in that it is Philip K. Dick-ish, but it is more controlled and mature – more ambitious, even – than Dick. It works on several levels; it’s the kind of book that’s fun to talk about. What it isn’t is a noir pastiche with a detective with Tourette’s – there’s no need for Lethem to write Motherless Brooklyn again, but some people are stuck on it. Re-read Motherless Brooklyn if that’s what you want from Lethem — but you’ll be missing out.
And then there’s Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. A vocal Pynchon contingent loves big, perplexing Gravity’s Rainbow – talk about layers! – and looks down on The Crying of Lot 49. The Pynchonmanes like the intellectual challenge of his massive books, and they tend to balk against the straightforward elements of Inherent Vice, which has a relatively clear plotline and a likeable, stoned main character. I would argue that comprehensibility is not a fault, that this book is as full of giddy joy with language and ephemeral ideas as his others. Those who don’t see that are looking too close, but perhaps that’s because they (we) are the target: when you step back, the book reads as an argument against the ambitious digging of his ardent fans. It’s a 400-page case for living with mystery. Long may Pynchon’s seclusion reign.