By Jonathan Lethem
480 pages; Doubleday

"There's something pleasant about me," muses retired actor Chase Insteadman in Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City . "I skate on frictionless ball bearings of charm…charisma that threatens no one." Ah, but friction, charisma, unpleasantness, and threat are key to this tale of scintillating misfits (polemical, sardonic Perkus Tooth), power brokers (Richard Abneg, a billionaire mayor's operative), nervy, vulnerable heroines (Chase's lost-in-space astronaut fiancée, Janice Trumbull, and ghostwriter Oona Laszlo, "a rib of Manhattan torn out to make a woman"). All careen through Lethem's dizzyingly brilliant urban enigma, in which love is elusive and intimations of apocalypse (e.g., a mammoth infrastructure-crunching tiger) are as common as cheeseburgers.

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