Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chronic City, pt. 1: Almost Like Being in Love

Much has been made of the "bro-mance," so popular in Hollywood of late: the stories of male friendships, often fortified with a diet of Bud and bud, platonic but more potent at times than the competing ties of sexuality and romance.  The films of Judd Apatow, Pineapple Express, Old School, the Harold and Kumar franchise, Stepbrothers, Jay and Silent Bob -- the list goes on.  Despite their box office success, these movies have been called, variously, everything from homophobic to homoerotic, not to mention misogynistic, scatological, and crude, and have been slammed more than once for celebrating relationships based on male self-indulgence and escapism, for thinking it's funny when husbands skip out on their dishwashing duties to smoke pot together behind the garage.  Though I take issue with the tone of this criticism -- lighten up, mom -- it is true that these movies are at times dismissive, or at least glib, in their treatment of female characters, and that all too often, they are disappointingly stupid. 

But at a deeper level, the movie "bro-mance" is simply a popularization of a thread long present in American storytelling, from the buddy road trip of On the Road to those two marriage-crashers, Nick Carraway and Gatsby, to the laugh-out-loud hijinks of Huck and Jim, utterly companionable even when pissed at each other.  Friendship, though less glamorous than true love and less sexy than, well, sex, is a subject that in my opinion lends itself well to long-form narrative exploration, because its stages and heartbreaks and sheer importance remain mostly unarticulated in our culture; it's necessary to write about, if only to explain it to ourselves.  We may have weddings and anniversaries, Valentines and housewarming parties to celebrate new developments in our love lives, but how do we celebrate our friends?  Usually we don't, and we only realize how much they meant to us when death -- or life -- permanently separates us.

So, when I say that Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem is a masterpiece of bro-mance, a wildly ambitious stoner novel, an epic of two guys on a couch, I mean no contradiction.  Lethem has taken on a vast challenge in painting the portrait of this friendship, and doing it (unlike so many of his aforementioned contemporaries in Hollywood) with unerring sensitivity, imagination, and depth.  It's difficult for me to even begin writing about this book, in fact, because despite the fabulist slight-of-hand that renders his Lower Manhattan invisible behind a gray cloud and sets loose eagles and what might be a tiger on the rest of the island, this book and especially its characters felt so real to me, so true and vibrant and achingly alive, it's almost impossible for me to admit that they were constructed by an author out of mere words.  I'm going to write a series of posts about the book -- probably two or three -- as my thoughts continue to percolate, but for the time being, I can only say that Chase Insteadman is right: Perkus Tooth's friendship (and ergo, his apartment) is a "magic zone," an enchanted place I never wanted to leave.  And if that's not love, I don't know what is.


Eric Taxier said...

Friendship's a great subject for "narrative exploration, because its stages and heartbreaks and sheer importance remain mostly unarticulated in our culture." Brilliant.

I've never thought about the lack of marked rites of friendship in our culture, but I also can't think of any historical or "non-Western" examples of that sort of thing.

V. Wetlaufer said...

I think your estimation of the "bro-mance" movies is accurate.

And this is a really great review. I'm definitely reading this book over the holidays.

And PS, your apartment is my magic zone.