Lucky Alan & Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem, book review: Friendship in an unlikely place

Jonathan Lethem's short-story collection is as delightful as it is off-beat
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The Independent Culture

The title story of Jonathan Lethem's intriguing new collection of short fiction is the bizarrely touching story of an unlikely friendship. Sigismund Blondy, a director of "minimalist spectacles", and Alan Zwelish, a software engineer, cement a bond over mid-afternoon visits to the "indifferent first-run films", discussions of "great works" by Rothko and Durrell, existential questionnaires by Frisch and mid-afternoon glasses of wine in a vividly-evoked Manhattan cityscape, with flocks of green parrots infesting its trees. Then Zwelish marries, and Blondy betrays him by making a pass at Doris, his newly-acquired 'Asian' wife.

But that's not all. In 22 finely-crafted pages, Blondy experiences separations, death and the posthumous loss of friendship. Lethem's deadpan tone both underlies and subverts the moral of Blondy's fable, which brings together the story's disparate strands: "You don't choose who you love. Or who loves you."

The real impact of the story lies in its oblique mode of narration: it may not be true at all. It's told in Blondy's reconstructed account to the narrator, whose third person version the reader receives. Zwelish doesn't actually appear, except as the a character in someone else's memory, and what we ultimately learn is the story of the narrator's own complex and vicarious relationship with Blondy.

In this story Lethem's sleight of hand is subtly displayed. There are other stories that don't play narrative tricks: their effects are gained by a twist – or a sting – in the tail. In 'The King of Sentences', a gushing young couple sets off in search of the eponymous reclusive author, only to be subjected to a sadistic ritual of attrition when they do finally meet their idol. In the chilling 'Procedure in Plain Air', Stevick watches, from the safety of a coffee shop, two men burying a dark-skinned, gagged captive in a hole they've just dug in the street. In 'The Porn Critic', Kromer, "editor of the Sex Machines newsletter, as well as its sole contributor and reviewer of new materials", fumbles through his almost unintentional trajectory as a "saint of degeneracy", in the promiscuous, hedonistic company of Greta, a "baggy-eyed heiress"; he finally considers adding prostitution to his "roll call of glamorous crimes". Lethem is renowned for his genre-bending, and in some stories here there's a sense that he indulges in whimsical pastiche for its own sake. The staccato sentences of 'Traveller Home' evokes a sort of deadening déjà vu, and 'The Dreaming Ear, The Salivating Jaw', presented as a blog, seems to tail off after a series of fantasy episodes that question the boundaries between actual and virtual worlds, "at the ocean's edge, a blog-by-the-sea".

Even in the best collections of short fictions there's a suspicion that certain stories are just padding or occasional pieces. Lucky Alan is a brief volume; some stories don't quite match the best. That said, Lethem mostly avoids the common transatlantic pitfalls of the form. There aren't, for example, any meandering narratives, with the possible exception of 'The Empty Room', which resembles a sequence of outtakes from a quirky domestic novel. But the most thrilling story in the book is also the most outlandish: 'Their Back Pages', in which a group of cartoon characters crash land on an island. Their adventures are recounted in a riotous and gaudy series of comic strip descriptions and journal entries. Monsters, rabbits, pompous overgrown boys, sexual heat, fornication and childhood violence converge, in a kind of omniscient indifference, in an adult wonderland. Enter at your own risk.