Jonathan Lethem has a reputation across the pond for experimental writing and diverse subject matter, and while this slim collection shows signs of both, it’s also for the most part not very good. The nine stories can be loosely spilt into two categories, realist and absurd, with the four tales that tend towards realism being the more successful.
The final story, “Pending Vegan”, is a stand-out moment, a tense and terrifying first person account of a young father having a minor breakdown while visiting SeaWorld with his uptight wife and twin four-year-old girls. The story packs a real emotional punch and reminds us of Lethem at his best, when his linguistic gymnastics work in service of character and plot, rather than jarring against them.
The other story really worth reading is “The Empty Room”, a quirky, troublesome yarn about a family who move to a house in the suburbs where the father declares one room can be used for anything, as long as it forever stays empty. Like “Pending Vegan”, this story flirts with weirdness and subversion, but within a realistic framework, which adds to the story’s power.
The two other “realist” stories here are typical Lethem tributes to his beloved New York. One features a washed-up theatre director, the other tells of a student who reviews porn movies in his spare time. Both men are lonely and trapped in isolation, and while they’re diverting character studies, neither really goes anywhere interesting.
Of the experimental stories, “Traveler Home” is the only one that engages. A dreamlike, staccato narrative tells a strange pseudo-fable of a loner who is presented with a human baby in a basket by a pack of wolves, only to have it taken from him by neighbouring girls. Written in deliberately juddering syntax, it feels a little like an exercise in writing, but just about pulls together some heart. The other stories are less successful. “Their Back Pages” sees obsolete cartoon characters stranded on an island, while “Procedure in Plain Air” is a very thin piece of Kafka-esque absurdity.
There are two stories here that really annoyed with their pretentiousness. “The King of Sentences”, where a couple worship an ageing author, is supposed to satirise literary pretension but reinforces it, while “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” appears to be snidely mocking blog culture. Experimentation and diversity in writing are great, but not at the expense of quality.
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