As She Climbed Across the Table

by Jonathan Lethem

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As She Climbed Across the Table

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE is light reading: light satire, light romance, light science, and light in weight at 212 pages. Light is not necessarily bad, and there is much to savor in this little book, but readers may not get up feeling sated after finishing it.

At the center of the tale prattles Philip Engstrand, who has devised a role for himself at his university as an anthropologist of his fellow professors. He loves Alice Coombs, whose colleague, the pasty, mole-like Professor Soft, creates a kind of mini-universe in the lab. Called Lack, it manifests itself as a yawning nothingness, albeit one that can be very choosy about what it swallows.

When Alice falls in love with Lack, Lethem has a field day applying the ambiguities and paradoxes of physics to modern relationship, romantic and otherwise. His most intriguing inventions, for instance, are two blind men, Garth and Evan, a Tweedledum and Tweedledee (by way of Samuel Beckett) who comprise their own mini-universe long before Lack.

All this is good fun, but the book fails to generate any believable human heat. There are many clever ideas, but few convincing characters. This would be okay if Lethem were not so determined to say something about love and obsession. It all boils down to very little: people want what they cannot have.

The book fails as a satire of university life for similar reasons. The garrulous Philip starts out conflicted, even self-ridiculing, sort of a Lucky Jim, but he quickly settles into a bland sameness, engaging, but unable to create tension or surprise, much less pointed satire. Instead, Lethem relies on easy targets like cafeteria food and student study habits for his humor, suggesting he has more experience going to college than teaching there.

With its word play and science fun, the book works best as a brain teaser. The writing can be quite good. Philip’s articles are described as “dry and unreadable as a handful of fine sand.” Too often, however, the prose is merely serviceable and the characters only mouthpieces. The voice is likeable, so you keep reading, but lack is what you’re left with.

Sources for Further Study

American Book Review. XVIII, July-August, 1997, p. 6.

Artforum. XXXVI, September, 1997, p. 30.

Fantasy and Science Fiction. XCIII, August 1, 1997, p. 20.

Houston Chronicle. May 18, 1997, p. Z22.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, January 15, 1997, p. 83.

Library Journal. CXXII, March 15, 1997, p. 90.

Los Angeles Times. February 26, 1997, p. E6.

The New Yorker. LXXIII, March 31, 1997, p. 101.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, February 3, 1997, p. 93.

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