20 Books of Summer 21 #12 – Jonathan Lethem

The next two of my 20 Books of Summer 21 reads are both linked by being SF, but SF-ish, in that they are novels by literary authors who enjoy transcending genre and mixing things up. I was going to cover them both in one post – but wrote more than I intended on the first of this pair, so here are thoughts on one of them…

As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem

I rediscovered Lethem earlier this year when I read and very much enjoyed a recent novel, The Arrest, which was a story of small town post-apocalyptic dystopian life. Although most celebrated for Motherless Brooklyn, a noir whose protagonist has Tourettes, he began his novel writing with a SF book – but not just SF, it was SF noir (and I must re-read Gun With Occasional Music).

His 1997 novella, As She Climbed Across the Table is best described as contemporary SF with a metaphysical bent, but with some classic fantasy touches.

Our narrator is Philip, an anthropology professor at an unnamed university, and as the story begins he is on his way to meet his girlfriend, Alice, a Physics prof at her department:

Unlike the physicists, my workday was over. My department couldn’t pretend it was on the edge of something epochal. When the sun set we freed our graduate students to scatter to movie theaters, bowling alleys, pizza parlors. What hurry? We were studying local phenomena, recent affairs. The physicists were studying the beginning, so they rushed to describe or bring about the end.

As I hurtled toward her, carving shortcuts across the grass, violating the grid of concrete walkways, my heart was light. I was in orbit around Alice. I was a fizzy, spinning particle. I wanted to penetrate her field, see myself caught in her science gaze. Her Paradigm Eyes.

He arrives at Physics at an epochal moment indeed. Professor Soft has created a ‘false vacuum bubble’ in ‘Cauchy-space’. They’re about to detach it from the synchrotron and will have created a wormhole to what they hope is another universe. But the bubble won’t detach, and the physicists don’t want to leave it. When it eventually detaches, Philip gradually finds that he has a rival for Alice’s attention. She is obsessed with the bubble, which they’ve christened ‘Lack’ for its nothingness! They start trying to put things into Lack, only to discover that the wormhole is rather choosy about what goes through its portal–Lack likes strawberries–and manages to accept an old lab cat when she gets into the room. Lack is growing a personality! The question is will Lack accept a human should one be brave enough to attempt it?

A side plot introduces a pair of blind men, Garth and Evan. Evan is truly blind, but Garth has ‘blindsight’ – he can only see if his brain is tricked into it. Garth is a physicist and is working with Alice, as his blindsight gets around the ‘observer problem’ – that something only exists if it is seen. Garth and Evan are between residences, and Alice persuades Philip to put them up – she is at home less and less, staying with Lack. This is all very worrying to Philip.

You can probably guess that someone will try to enter Lack’s portal – but who?

This novella is really a philosophical novel dressed up in SF clothing, but more than that it is Lethem’s response to Alice Through the Looking Glass (which the blurb does mention, but I tried not to think about until finishing the book). It now seems obvious, but Garth and Evan, are a clever reversal of Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Alice’s cat goes through the looking glass with her.

The ‘science’ is pure fantasy, and in that it reminded me of the Strugatsky brothers’ mad scientists in Monday Starts on Saturday, but if not quite as mad, just as obsessional. Philip, like Garth, is also an observer, but professionally as an anthropologist, as a non-physicist, and also as a lover spurned for the new not-person on the block.

Lethem talks a good talk though, you’ll be blinded by his physics jokes and metaphysical discussions – exemplified by Philip’s discussions with Italian Professor Braxia, who is also working there, who explains:

“Consciousness creates reality. Only when there is a mind to consider the world is there a world. Nothing before, except potential. Potential this, potential that. The creation event–the big bang–it was the creation of enormous potential, nothing more.” […]

“We explore the history of the creation of our universe, so the big bang becomes real. But only because we investigate. Another example: There are sub-atomic particles as far as we are willing to look. We create them. Consciousness writes reality, in any direction it looks–past, future, big small. Wherever we look we find reality forming in response.”

That’s a challenging concept isn’t it? I blame Schrödinger’s cat.

This novella was fun. The science isn’t to be taken seriously, but some of the concepts within its pages are quite thought-provoking. I very much enjoyed it. (8/10)

Source: Own copy. As She Climbed Across the Table, Faber paperback, 192 pages. BUY at Amazon via affiliate link. (Blackwell’s does have a few used copies)

5 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer 21 #12 – Jonathan Lethem

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Oh, this sounds good! I like the idea of the Big Bang only existing because we in effect create it because we can’t think of another way to explain our universe. And the tie in with Alice is also intriguing, and the Strugatskys. I probably wouldn’t have consider this without your review, but now I might have to investigate!

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