As She Climbed Across The Table by Jonathon Lethem (1997) 192 p.

This is the first of Lethem’s novels that can be accurately described as one, rather than a stretched out short story or a crudely pasted together amalgamation of short stories. As She Climbed Across The Table concerns a love-lorn anthropologist, Phillip, whose physicist girlfriend Alice has become obsessed with a wormhole dubbed “Lack” which has been created in her physics department at a California university. Lack is notable for making certain random objects disappear, while others pass right through it. Phillip becomes increasingly concerned at Alice’s obsession with Lack, which he suspects is bordering on romantic infatuation.

I wouldn’t call this a satirical novel, as others have, though it certainly pokes a lot of fun at various academic pursuits, and academia and university life in general. This is the first of Lethem’s novels which is ostensibly set in the real world, but although the speculative element – a manufactured wormhole, not so different to what’s going on at CERN – is easy to swallow, it later develops into events which, while fascinating, made the book quite surreal. It’s a love story, and while I wasn’t particularly wrapped up in it, I never had trouble believing it.

That’s one of Lethem’s great qualities – he’s always totally in control of his prose, even if his story comes off the rails a bit. It reminds me quite a lot of the early novels of Michael Chabon, about which I said that Chabon was already a master writer, just not a master storyteller. Both writers have prose good enough that I’m willing to forgive the overall pointlessness of some of their novels. The closest word, I guess, is “readable,” though that implies shallowness and ease of reading, which isn’t quite what I mean.

Both authors are also adept at perfectly capturing human thoughts and emotions and discussions. Their characters are perpetually thinking things they aren’t saying, and analysing their train wreck conversations in real time while pretending everything is fine. I like it. It’s realistic. It reminds me of how I (and, I presume, everyone else) think about how I stumble through life without ever actually articulating it, even in my head.

Anyway. I’m enjoying reading through Lethem’s early novels, even if I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them. Next up is Girl in Landscape, followed by the first of his books that’s actually well-known, Motherless Brooklyn.