AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE
by Jonathan Lethem
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
After reading his third novel, about the only thing which can be said with any certainty about Jonathan Lethem is that he is still trying to find a voice uniquely his own. This is not necessarily a bad thing. His novels are all very well written and interesting. However, each novel blatantly demonstrates its authorial influences, whether its the Raymond Chandler detective noir school of Gun, With Occasional Music or the Samuel Beckett Waiting-for-Godot-esque As She Climbed Across the Table. The current novel also bears a strong flavor of the absurdity found in Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, driven home by the protagonist's girlfriend's name: Alice. All the while, Lethem manages a certain Dickian atmosphere.
As She Climbed Across the Table is set on the campus of North California University, Beauchamp . Philip Engstrand is a sociologist specializing in the disciplinary and interdisciplinary conflicts which occur at universities. Prior to the beginning of the novel, his research brought him into contact with nuclear particle physicist Alice Coombs, with whom he now shares living quarters.
As She Climbed Across the Table is a well-written satire on, among other things, university politics and academia. Characters borrow each others phrases and assign meanings to areas outside their expertise, all the while trying to identify, and therefore own, the experiences or objects. However, Lethem's satire is more subtle in As She Climbed Across the Table than in his previous novelistic outings.
The impetus for the novel is the creation of a strange void in the particle physics lab: the Lack. As two physicists, Alice and Professor Soft, create their own approaches to the Lack, Alice drifts away from her close relationship with Engstrand. Refusing to believe her love for him can die so completely, Engstrand does whatever he can to remain close to Alice, even getting pulled into the cabal which is eventually formed to regulate access to the Lack.
Lethem's characterizations are good, for the most part, and many of the characters exhibit change, if not growth throughout the course of the novel. Initial reader's reaction to a character is often proved false by later events as Engstrand, and through him to reader, comes to know characters better. Even characters who at first seem likely to be unlikable foils turn out to be nothing more or less than an average person trying to succeed.
This is actually one of the central themes of the novel. Alice's estrangement from Philip and his own desire to retain her are signs of their seeking their own identity. Both characters are as blind to themselves as Evan and Garth, the two blind men Alice invites to move in with Philip, are to their surroundings. In one notable scene, Philip even goes so far as to adopt a personality completely unrelated to the academic he really is, claiming, instead, to be a consultant to identify Nobel quality research.
Perhaps my biggest complaint about this novel has nothing to do with Lethem at all. His first three books have amazingly evocative covers, from the beaten-up detective novel look of Gun, With Occasion Music to the Old Road Side appearance of Amnesia Moon. In moving from a smaller publisher to Doubleday, Lethem's cover art seems to suffer from a desire to push him into the mainstream.
I picked up this novel intending only to read a few pages before going to bed. By the time I forced myself to put it down, I had read more than half the book, anxious to be able to return to Lethem's university and knowing the novel was too short. Lethem's novels (and short stories, one of which is a 1996 Nebula nominee) continue to get better. With luck, he'll have a long, productive literary life.
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