"I'm outstanding only in my essential politeness," he confesses in a formal, slightly archaic voice that marks the novel's most masterly and seductive quality. "My distinction (if there is one) lies in the helpless and immersive extent of my empathy. I'm truly a vacuum filled by the folks I'm with, and vapidly neutral in their absence."
Though he's tirelessly observant and sensitive -- a wry combination of "P.G. Wodehouse and Cary Grant" -- he offers so many confessions of forgetfulness and confusion that his unreliability as a narrator is the only thing you can definitely rely on. Indeed, he seems determined to live up to his name, "Instead-man," as a kind of substitute man, "pointlessly deferential," perpetually flummoxed, baffled and amazed by what's happening to him. When a fan accidentally calls him "Chase Unperson," he takes no offense at all.
As the novel opens, Chase meets and quickly falls under the spell of an unemployed writer named Perkus Tooth. With one wandering eye and a collection of bizarre vintage suits, Perkus once, briefly, ruled the world of music criticism -- "Hunter Thompson-meets-Pauline Kael" -- writing for Rolling Stone and plastering the city with his iconoclastic posters. But now he's a "fugitive ecstatic," holed up in his "bohemian grotto," smoking pot and assembling ever-more-complex conspiracy theories and occult knowledge about New York City. Marlon Brando could help, of course, but he's in hiding (don't believe those obituaries).
Perkus cuts up the front page of the New York Times every morning and rearranges the pieces to reveal what's really going on. He laboriously retypes the New Yorker to read the articles without being influenced by the magazine's iconic typeface. "We've been living in a place that's a replica of itself," he tells Chase with feverish intensity, "a fragile simulacrum, full of gaps and glitches. A theme park, really! Meant to halt time's encroachment."
Lethem's exploration of this idea is initially witty and eccentric enough to keep the novel moving along. He's particularly adept at creating a version of the city that's just a few degrees off from reality, a dark if zany satire. The lower end of Manhattan is permanently encased in gray fog, a macabre allusion to 9/11, and the billionaire law-and-order mayor is an amalgamation of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Apartment buildings have been retrofitted as canine condos, and the New York Times offers a "War Free Edition" that usually runs a story of Chase's lovely fiancee, an astronaut trapped in orbit in a dying space capsule. A postmodern sculptor named Laird Noteless creates cavernous chasms and fjords around Manhattan like hideous emblems of Ground Zero. And a tiger that's escaped from the zoo terrorizes the city, but maybe that's just the mayor's cover story for a tunnel-drilling robot run amok.