One of the writers that draws me back is Jonathan
Lethem. Great ideas and social commentary are certainly good reasons
to read him, but his quirky use of language is the most interesting
incentive. In Girl
In Landscape he describes English from the point of view
of aliens called Archbuilders: "a language of enchanting limitations...words...garishly
over-loaded with meaning." The Archbuilders claim that speaking
it is like "stringing poems into sentences" and "speaking
hieroglyphs." They give themselves names like Hiding Kneel,
Truth Renowned, Grinning Contrivance, and Specious Axiomatic, because
they see English as a "language all of names." They say,
"English words are funny. English sentences are grave."
Lethem's books may be an "easy read," but his exploration
of language is complex and profound. He can describe characters
purely in terms of speech, "all interruptions...a series of
things broken off." He can paint surreal pictures: "a
basin ringed by crumbled arches. Eroded spires that rose a thousand
feet into the air. Fallen bridges, incomplete towers, demolished
pillars. The valley was a monumental roofless cathedral with only
the buttresses intact, and the calm purple-pink sky...glowed like
stained-glass windows between these vast ruined frames."
On one level Girl
In Landscape is a coming-of-age story. When their mother
dies, their father, who is "one of those irrelevant parents,"
takes Pella Marsh and her brothers to a strange planet. Pella
is forced to grow up, and in the process becomes part of the landscape,
running, hiding in it, spying on the others (in a most unusual
way). It is left to Pella, who is a mix-up of girl/woman/other,
to unravel the complexities of a new order. Human bigotry, "misplaced
intensity," ignorance, alien complicity, and household deer
complicate her task. It's a "clunking challenge" for
a 13-year-old, but Pella is "brave like an arm." (Did
I mention that the Archbuilders' English speech patterns are something
like Gracie Allen's?)
Then there's Amnesia
It's a rare man who can keep his sanity while
the world and its rules constantly change; Everett Moon, AKA Chaos,
is not quite one of those. He is, however, undeniably a very rare
man, a man with gaps in his life, a man with a tenuous FSR (Finite
The Chinese have a story about a sage who dreams
he's a butterfly and when he wakes, he's no longer certain whether
he's a man who dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming
he is a man. Chaos's road trip is something like the butterfly
dream. Reality and dream are not widely separated; people have
overlapping dreams and live in each other's dreams, and worst
of all, you can be tracked by your dreams.
Moon, Chaos goes on a surreal road trip with a
hairy little girl named Melinda. Each place they pass through
has entirely different local syndromes that morph into and out
of each other. There are genetically damaged people, lead by Kellogg
and his Food Rangers, in the Little America they leave behind.
There are people who live totally enveloped in green fog, McDonaldonians,
Vacaville's-Luck-Board and Government Stars, robot televangelists,
and old friends condensed into vials of liquid ready to be injected.
Melinda comes of age in this book, and maybe Everett Moon does
too. But mostly we see our world and ourselves in an Escheresque
configuration and wonder which is the dream.
The third book in this eccentric list is As
She Climbed Across the Table. It is Lethem's "romance."
(OK, it does have some fantastic science in it.) This is the book
that you plot out at a bar one night with a friend who is physics
major. But when you go home and try to write/paint/film it, you
find it's impossible. Lethem pulls it off brilliantly. In the
process he manages to satirize love, science, and academia.
Philip Engstrrand is "interdean" at
a small California university. (Where else could such a thing
happen?) His girlfriend, an assistant professor specializing in
particle physics, dumps him for...nothing...a void called Lack.
The situation is hilariously absurd. As Philip tells Alice: "I
can't possibly compete. I could never offer you as little as Lack
does. He's playing hard to perceive."
The one thing Lack doesn't lack is taste. It likes
pomegranates, potassium, lightbulbs, mirrored sunglasses and yellow
construction paper. It rejects aluminum foil, a bow tie, a batter's
helmet and Alice (who remains undaunted). Philip's campaign to
win Alice back is complicated by clambering blind roommates, well-meaning
grad students, a horse-faced deconstructionist, a psychologist
specializing in obsessive coupling, Italian physicists, student
protests, delusive conditioning, and various other space and time
In the end, Philip manages to find a way to compete
with Lack in its own domain. We are lead on an inspired tour of
Substance and Nothingness and, as in Lethem's other works, are
provided with an abundance of bright and provocative nuggets.
All of Lethem's books are teeming with language
play, odd characters, unique settings, plot turns and juxtapositions.
Like itinerant pieces of an Escher puzzle, they emerge as he trespasses
on anomalous worlds that parallel and intersect our own.
This is Part II of Gay Partington Terry's
essay on Jonathan Lethem. See Issue No. 1 for Part I.