awesome genre-bending book (review): As She Climbed Across the Table, by Jonathan Lethem

physics, anthropology, a tiny universe, faculty absurdity, all in a Lethem day’s work

Philip, an anthropologist, is in love with Alice, a physicist.  A colleague of Alice’s does an experiment in which he opens up a tiny new universe.  The new universe’s only characteristic is that, when you throw things into it, it accepts some of them and rejects others.  Alice falls in love with the new universe.  Philip remains in love with Alice.  The universe, named Lack, accepts and rejects.  Mayhem ensues?

As usual, Lethem is difficult to characterize, but that doesn’t keep him from remaining GREAT.  This is my third Lethem book: Gun, with Occasional Music was crime noire mixed with science fiction; Motherless Brooklyn was crime noire with a protagonist with Tourette’s.  As She Climbed is … satire of academic intellectualism and university life?  (Definitely.)  Science fiction?  (Kind of, but not mostly.)

I love three things about Jonathan Lethem, and this book delivers on all three:

  • He draws his allusions from Everywhere.  One moment he references Dr. Seuss (“I am the Lorax, I thought.  I speak for the trees.”), the next it’s “Tang, the drink of the astronauts”, and in the last few pages we encounter a great allusion to the Greek myth of Persephone;
  • He is wonderfully creative.  In this novel, physicists, post-modern literary theorists, anthropologists, go head to head.  A woman falls in love with a universe.  Two blind men have their own language and explore the concept of time travel (see the excerpt at the end).  On and on. 
  • His prose is fast and clever.  I couldn’t put down his other two books (that I’ve read: Gun and Motherless).  This one, a little less frenetic (since it’s not a crime novel, after all) was still compelling. 

The ending is – in my opinion – fabulous, from a delightful faculty Christmas party to the surprising closure.

Excerpt on time travel from Gath, one of the blind guys, to Evan, the other blind guy: “I mean, if my watch says five-thirty, and I go around all day believing in that, and then I run into you and your watch says five o’clock, half an hour difference, and we’ve both gone around all day half an hour different – your two, my two-thirty, your four-fifteen, my four-forty-five, half an hour in the past relative to me, and certain of it, just as certain as I am, and we begin arguing, and then, at that moment, the rest of the world blow up, huh, just completely disappears, and we’re all that’s left, there’s no other reference point, no other observer, and for me it’s five-thirty and for you it’s five, isn’t that a form of time travel?” 86

Potentially objectionable content:  Maybe a little language, it didn’t stand out to me.  No sex scenes, but a few references to sex.

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