As She Climbed Across the Table
Jonathan Lethem is carving out a reputation for himself by making free with the conventions of American pop genres. His first book, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), took off from the styles of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler to create a futuristic, hard-boiled detective thriller replete with one-liners and genetically reengineered kangaroos. Lethem seems particularly drawn to Dick’s dark vision of a future where enlightened consciousness is flickering out everywhere like campfires in a midnight downpour.
In his second book, Amnesia Moon (1995), Lethem goes deeper into benighted territory where reality has become a demented head trip, literally. Lethem’s on-the-road novel winds through an America which has cut all ties to the earth and sailed off into the virtual reality of the American dream. The consumer culture’s reliance on drugs and computers to compensate for the emptiness of materialism only enlarges the void, stranding the individual in vertiginous solipsism. With the decay of the self, the continuity of identity often becomes a matter of staying awake or being swept away by the cascade of dreamscapes.
Lethem’s first two novels are set in the future, but like many books categorized as science fiction, they are more concerned with the past. He delights in the genres of his childhood and gives the impression of wanting to regain an innocent childhood normalcy. Amnesia Moon, for instance, is about the crystallization of a stable family unit from the ungodly mix of elements that constitute the soup of modern life. There is something decidedly sentimental about it. Lethem, like other writers of the 1990’s, is extremely knowing about the manifestations of pop culture and blind to its dark underpinnings. To be fair, Lethem depicts America’s provincialism and violence but as background, like billboards and fast food stands that flash by on the narrative’s rush for the safety of home and love.
As She Climbed Across the Table, Lethem’s third novel, is also about love, but in this case unrequited and obsessive love. It is probably the weakest of the three novels. Lethem is a high-concept writer, and he has come up with a great one—a love triangle involving two college professors and an artificial universe called Lack, a “man” for all obsessions. Lethem often demonstrates a knack for summing things up or deflating them in a few words: “The physicists were studying the beginning, so they rushed to describe or bring about the end.” Yet this novel is far more thought out than fleshed out.
Lethem starts with the idea that we all want what we do not have, then complicates it nicely. As a confirmed solipsist, he sees a relationship as a closed system where each person constantly creates an idealized other. All love is blind to some extent, and obsessive love is the blindest. The rejected lover does not see the pursued at all but is fixated on a projected need, which is then reinternalized as loss. Obsessive love was often the basis of old- fashioned romances where love conquered all. That sort of thing would nowadays result in a restraining order, however, so literary writers tend to be very wary in their approach to runaway passion.
In Lethem’s case, he plays it for comedy, lampooning romantic convention by having the dark stranger be a scientific experiment gone wrong. Lack is a mini-universe that is created in the lab. It has no attribute except an enigmatic habit of making certain things vanish when thrown into it, but not everything. This suggestion of intelligence is enough to make Lack everyone’s ideal object onto which they project qualities. That a woman falls in love with Lack might sound a bit chauvinistic (and Lethem evidences a certain bitterness toward women in this novel), but the big joke is that the narrator never sees his own obsession although it leads him to the extremes of identification with Lack.
The book is narrated by Philip Engstrand, a professor at the fictional University of North California at Beauchamp. Philip is an anthropologist who studies the university culture around him. His voice is witty and engaging and pulls the reader through the book effortlessly. Despite this, much of the novel feels thin. This is especially true in the case of the two women in Philip’s life. He loves Alice Coombs, a professor in the physics department. The problem here is that she is obsessed with Lack from her very first appearance, watching transfixed as Professor Soft tries to get the mini-universe to detach from the human one. Instead, it remains connected, leaving a portal for experimental penetration of all types.
Lethem squeezes considerable humor from the experimental offerings to Lack. Almost everything, except the laboratory sink, is pushed across the metal table of the title while scientists ponder the mystery of why some things vanish and some just fall to the floor. Alice offers herself several times, suffering the...
(The entire section is 2034 words.)