Why don't Jonathan Lethem's novels ever quite work? It's a valid question, because it's certainly not for lack of diligence (16 books under the belt at 45), nor for any lack of talent. Not only is he one of the country's most gifted essayists and critics, one to whom I eagerly turn whenever I see his byline, but he is also skilled with rounding out character and hearing the sound inside a sentence, from the manic patter of Motherless Brooklyn's Tourettic narrator to the uneasy rhythms of a comic-obsessed teen in Fortress of Solitude.

And yet…and yet. Reading Jonathan Lethem has been similar to the experience of watching filmmakers like Atom Egoyan or P.T. Anderson; one sees the aesthetic intelligence, the ambition, the raw energy of singular vision, but they frustrated and tantalized the viewer until they found the film they knew how to make (The Sweet Hereafter, say, or There Will Be Blood).

Chronic City (Doubleday, 480 pages, $27.95) should have been that book for Lethem, if for no other reason than that it is a novel so central to what Lethem himself is as a writer: It hinges on the manic paranoia and inauthenticity of a world conducted as pop reference. Chase Insteadman, himself almost merely a trope, is an accidental Manhattan socialite, a child star with a famous fiancée, who falls into a pot-fueled remapping of an already virtual city with ex-rock-critic Perkus Tooth, lover Oona Laszlo, and "rider of the hegemonic bulldozer" Richard Abneg. Even the book itself consists in a smart series of interlaced references, from the Pynchonian character names to sly quotes from DeLillo, from a band named Chthonic Youth to a cafe named after Steve Erickson's paranoiac novel Arc D'X.

Lethem's Manhattan isn't so much Manhattan as it is a series of rabbit holes, terrorized by what seems to be a quite literal escaped tiger, which is itself remade into fiction. And during the first 200 or so pages, this alternate Manhattan is compelling, claustrophobic, tightly engaging. But somehow the novel loses its force, not because of the mania of creation in this alternative NYC but rather because Lethem slowly yokes down this alternate city until the magic becomes, in tone, a merely unlikely realism. Unlike Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49, which this book at first resembles, Lethem keeps his readers (and his narrator) at too critical a distance, and explains far too much, and thus leaves me still waiting for that novel where Lethem finally knocks one all the way into the bleachers.


Jonathan Lethem reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Sunday, Oct. 25. Free.