Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, a novel that pays extensive homage to the mystic paranoid genius Philip K Dick, takes place in an alternate New York engulfed in a thick grey fog after a nameless national disaster. Somewhere else in the world a war is being fought: but although everyone knows the basics, which include a carpet of Chinese space-mines that bar access to Earth’s orbit, the New York Times has begun printing a ‘War Free Edition’ to leave space for the city’s own problems. These include a semi-mythical tiger that gulps down whole city blocks when it strikes – though paranoid conjecture suggests that it may instead be a sentient earth-moving machine – and a pair of nesting eagles in the façade of a prestigious brownstone.
Still, life goes on as normal for Lethem’s narrator, Chase Insteadman, former child star and professional spare man at the tables of Manhattan’s aimless and wealthy. With his career on hold, Insteadman’s real value is the role he plays every day as the ‘saddest man in New York’: