09 February 2009

As She Climbed Across the Table, by Jonathan Lethem

There's something supremely affable about Jonathan Lethem's writing style, and it goes a long way towards making up for a rather mysterious and undefinable weakness in his novels. For example, I remember Motherless Brooklyn, another work of his, as an absolutely fabulous book, a much better experiment in creating a narrator with a mental disorder (Tourette's) than the somewhat overrated Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime. But I also remember feeling rather disappointed at the end of the book, as though he'd let me down by not writing a better ending. I have a similar attitude towards As She Climbed Across the Table - there are many marvelous things about it that I very much appreciate, and I will indubitably remember it as a wonderful book in the years to come, but it cannot be ignored that it doesn't quite live up to its own potential. It's missing something. The ending feels oddly abrupt but also sort of ridiculous, and for all its abstract musings, it somehow fails to be as profound as it could be. Still, it's definitely an enjoyable read.

The novel details the miseries of a man named Phillip, whose girlfriend Alice, a physicist, has fallen in love with Lack, a man-made nothingness. It's almost boring, really - it's about a guy who gets his heart broken. Part of the problem with the work, I think, is that we never get to know Alice well enough to understand what he's losing, what their relationship was like before Lack came along. From the beginning of the novel she's so remote and cold that she's practically blank. Meanwhile Phillip's anxieties about the relationships initially seem like self-absorbed whining, and later like rather useless desperation. I realize this sounds very negative; I suppose what's amazing about the novel is how interesting it manages to be in spite of all this.

So the real meat of the text is Lack itself, and more generally, the relationship people have to science. This is quite fascinating, though it feels strangely underdeveloped. Strangely because there's an awful lot said about it, but I still feel like I want more. Lack is basically a void that devours some things and rejects others. By writing about different experiments that people conduct on it (or him), Lethem explores the ways in which people relate to things that they don't understand, how they make sense of them, apply metaphors to them, anthropomorphize them - and even fall in love with them.

Meanwhile, there's this side plot about two blind guys, one of whom is psychologically, though not physically, blind, and therefore seems like an interesting opportunity to solve the observer problem in physics experiments. They're fabulous characters, with wonderful dialogue, but they're largely tangential, though strangely necessary.

To restate the thesis - for all its weaknesses, it's a highly enjoyable book.

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