I've just finished Jonathan Lethem new CHRONIC CITY, which poses realities within realities, and is thus in clear resonance with, among others, Philip K. Dick's THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH and Paul Auster's NEW YORK TRILOGY. But where Dick was realistic in understanding how power manipulates and even "creates" reality, Auster and Lethem offer tours de force of puzzle making, detective work and puzzle solution (of sorts). Lethem, in addition, offers Pynchon-like wacko characterization and endless spinning out of plot. Why Manhattan as locus for Auster and Lethem's realities within realities? My friend JJ Penna offers as explanation the fact that a Manhattan dweller or frequent visitor (CHRONIC CITY takes place on Manhattan’s upper east side) is continuously shocked by the rapidity of turn-over of shops and sites – one’s bagel shop today is a GAP shop tomorrow. Second Avenue in Manhattan is in the throes of a cacaphonic excavation for the development of a new subway line that is uprooting cherished neighborhoods north and south. In other words, the visible and virtual commonwealth of civic life is overthrown: one finds oneself in foreign terrain. For upper east siders, this is especially tough because much of the old neighborhoods have withstood the changes that had engulfed so many others over the last decades.
But these changes are symbolic; metaphoric, only exemplary of other changes.
Another explanation: reality is for the most of us televised. But in what reality sit those who determine what is the televised? And behind them? And think of the Bush administrator who told Rick Perlstein that the White House and associates were creating realty. So reality exists within reality. And thus back to Philip K. Dick
Lethem is a minor master of the list -- names, for example, that make him and/or his characters seemingly au courant with literature, pop and high arts, politics, etc.; but each entry at best a clever synecdoche that alludes to something else, to which he does not go, but the reader comes to feel that he/she is making connections and is thus “with it.” As for the characters -- they are themselves two-dimensional. Of course the major protagonist, Chase Insteadman, is in fact self-confessedly two dimensional, admitting his own utter banal superficiality. But the other characters are as well comic book types. Which leads me to wonder about why, along with multi-dimensionality, has arisen a major contemporary theme, the comic book. Chabon writes about comics (or "comix" as I've seen it spelled); R. Crumb and Spiegelman write and draw them, as do legions of other graphic writers, illustrators and now, film makers. Can it be that the powers of graphic lit and film lie in their ability to take us back to our childhood, rooted as it was in timeless myth and wonder, thereby retrieving for each of us a vantage point of supposed innocence and naiveté from which we can once again engage and confront reality, this time with wonder, yes, but a wonder of the world weary variety that moves dialectically into cynicism and despair?