Jonathan Lethem has long been a practitioner of a late variety of magical realism that owes more to Philip K Dick than to Gabriel García Márquez. His previous novel, The Fortress of Solitude, blurred the lines between comic-book fantasy and a realist portrayal of two adolescences: that of his protagonists and that of the gentrification of the part of Brooklyn in which they live. In his new novel, Chronic City, it is time itself that has become mystically smeared - in particular, the chaotic decade through which we have all just lived.
We know for sure that it takes place some time after 2004, but beyond that it is unclear whether Lethem's novel is set in our recent past or immediate future. The ambient details and background news events don't help much to clarify matters. A space station manned by Americans and Russians has been encircled by Chinese mines, preventing resupply or escape. The long-planned (and long-delayed) Second Avenue subway is under construction, but something has gone wrong with the robotic tunnelling machine, which surfaces periodically to destroy rent-controlled apartment blocks. There is a war on, or wars, though we hear nothing at all about them. On the other hand, something else, something extremely important to both New York City and the world seems not to have happened, but we learn this only very late and in passing.
Against this frenetically static backdrop, Chronic City follows a set of characters as they move through the middle-to-high reaches of Manhattan society - dinner parties and award ceremonies littered with celebrities whose names we recognise and those we're not sure whether we do or not. Lethem's narrator, Chase Insteadman, is a former child television star back in the public eye because his fiancée, Janice Trumbull, is one of the astronauts trapped on the space station. Although she sends tragically plaintive love letters to Chase - letters that are printed in the New York Times as they arrive - the novel is centred on his relationships with two other people.
Perkus Tooth, an erstwhile Rolling Stone columnist and one-time guerrilla pamphleteer, indulges in joint after joint of high-grade marijuana while attempting to formulate a theory of, well, everything: the period, its failure of meaning, the end of authenticity, and Marlon Brando's expression of the contemporary "unexpressed" are just the start of the list. Oona Laszlo, on the other hand, is a one-time assistant of Perkus's who now ghostwrites celebrity autobiographies of such luminaries as a female professional basketball player who was "abducted and serially tortured by a teenage gang", while conducting an intense affair with Chase.
But something has gone quietly if seriously wrong with the plot - both the plot of Lethem's novel and that of the frozen city in which he has set it. A deep fog has settled permanently over Lower Manhattan, and it just keeps snowing, as if winter will never end. Chronic City itself is similarly stuck when it comes to the storylines that the cast of characters follow. A large section of the novel is taken up with an issueless quest, led by Perkus, to obtain a mysterious make of vase called a chaldron, which Perkus describes as a "treasure from the future, if we deserve a future that benign". Other extended stretches have us listening to a set of marijuana-bedazzled, early-middle-aged men riff at length about the psychological effect of the letter-boxing of DVD movies, whether Brando is actually dead, and the deeper meaning of the toilets in the Stonehenge car park.
But the busy emptiness of the lives of the characters, the way if they are to find a storyline to follow it has to be one that they paranoiacally fantasise for themselves, seems to be Lethem's point. One of the recurring tropes of Chronic City is that the New York Times now (whenever "now" exactly is) publishes both a regular and a "War Free" edition for those bothered by too much gore and horror in their daily paper. Lethem's novel, likewise, is not only war-free, but further free of reference to any of the other ominous crises that have preoccupied us in the second half of this troubled decade.
Again, this seems to have been Lethem's intention - to sketch the hermetically sealed everyday world of distracted and insipid urbanity as distracted and insipid. But as Perkus writes at one point, quoting Leonard Cohen, "there is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn't". Chronic City can't quite bring itself to say either way. In the end, I was left wishing that a novelist of Lethem's talent and encyclopaedic ambition would have taken up the harder challenge of capturing the contradictions of present-day urban life, rather than taking the easy way out and sketching another all-too-slow-burning bonfire of the vanities, one more satirically rolled spliff of a novel.
Faber & Faber, 480pp, £14.99
Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in English at University College London