THIS SHAPE WE'RE IN

by Jonathan Lethem

McSweeney's

0-9703355-2-0

53pp/$9.00/2001

This Shape We're In
Cover by Chester Brown

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Jonathan Lethem is consistently one of the most original authors writing today, whether he is describing a noir Los Angeles inhabited by gene-modified kangaroos or the Brooklyn of a small-time gangster with Touretteís Syndrome.  While This Shape Weíre In may be shorter than Lethemís novels, this just means that he only has fifty-odd pages to fit in his various oddities. 

Lethem never fully describes the strange world Henry Allan Farbur lives in, instead he allows the reader to be as confused as this man who lives in the bowels of a sort of generation ship as a garbage hider.  Farburís vision, and therefore the readerís, is obscured by the haze of alcohol which perpetually hides Farburís memory, although as he goes on a quest for his missing son, it becomes apparent that at one time he was an important person in his world, which is now falling apart.

Although Lethem eventually reveals something about the ship which Farbur inhabits, he never fully explains what is happening, allowing the ambiguity of the situation to linger and raise questions in the readerís mind as to the importance of Farburís quest.  About the only thing that Lethem does clarify is that the speculations advanced by Farburís companion, Balkan, his sonís friend, are wrong, and nobody seems to have a better idea of the situation.

Farburís Mecca is the Central Command, theoretically reachable through a simple call from one of the red emergency phones located throughout the habitat.  Instead, an apparent breakdown has resulted in all the phones connecting to a strange phone sex line.  It is clear that Farburís stated goal, the discovery of his son, will only be one step on his road to discovery if his son is found before Farbur solves the mystery of Central Command.

The mystery of Farburís environment is only one of the questions Lethem sets up.  The other one is the identity of Farbur, himself.  At the beginning of the book, the only indication that Farbur is more than he appears is the respect Balkan shows for him.  Along their travels, Farbur is consistently deferred to as people recognize him, although he gives no indication that their recognition is of any import until it helps him attain his goals.

This Shape Weíre In is not, unfortunately, as wonderful and inviting a book as Lethemís longer work.  While chockfull of interesting and clever ideas, Lethem only whets the readerís appetite with the hint of greater explanations and exposition which fail to materialize.  Apparently, Lethem is currently working on a more massive book than any he has previously published.  While thickness is no indication of quality, it gives hope that his current project will have more meat than This Shape Weíre In.


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