We may have mentioned before that one of the pleasures of a good short story collection is in the bending of them to your will (ie you don’t have to read them in the prescribed order, if you have a 20 minute window and there is a 10 page story later in the book, you’re almost compelled to read that in favour of a story you wouldn’t necessarily finish in the window available to you). The danger of doing this (taking aside the small point that it’s kind of disrespectful to the author who probably, you know, took time thinking about the right order a collection should proceed in) is that, like the blind men and the elephant, you come at the book from the wrong angle. This is exactly what I did with Jonathan Lethem’s latest collection, Lucky Alan.
It was late at night. Picture the whole reading in bed scenario. Just finished the last book. Looking to dip my toe into a new book. I pick up Lucky Alan from the pile and plump for ‘The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Eye’, one of the shortest tales in the book but also a story with a title that recalls The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, the first collection of Lethem short stories I ever read and a book I liked and continue to like. Now – ever so slightly before we get to ‘The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Eye’ – a reminder: we have always considered ourselves Lethem fans. We’ve been reading him since 2003 (Fortress of Solitude) and in that time we’ve read (almost) everything (there are a couple of bits of nonfiction outstanding – Fear of Music, They Live, Believeniks – but they’re on the shelf and we’ll get to them) and we’ve liked a lot of what we’ve read. Certainly enough to consider ourselves fans. We didn’t rub along with Dissident Gardens entirely but, hey, what’s the odd book between friends? ‘The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Eye’ (a tale of a blogger, possibly, and a personified blog – where ‘gulls have skeletonized the corpse in the entranceway’ – the corpse being a man the blogger killed who once ‘tried to enter the blog’ – a tale that fragments into a number of different perspectives and is, to put it politely, somewhat difficult, if we’re being polite, and somewhat irritating, if we’re not) hit us hard. We didn’t like it at all. For a brief moment, the possibility arose of a parting of the ways. Perhaps (choke… gasp…) Jonathan Lethem wasn’t for us anymore… We finished the story and popped the book back on the bedside table and slept a fitful sleep (we take these things seriously!).
Thankfully we calmed down. Phew. We started at the start. We read the stories in the order intended. We behaved ourselves. We acknowledged that short story collections, particularly for a writer as established as Lethem, are opportunities to try things out, to shake off the dust of a novel, to stretch the muscles, to experiment, to be both like and unlike oneself, to be unexpected, to scratch itches, to write perhaps the kinds of things one enjoys writing, to write the kinds of things fans like and critics deride. Lucky Alan is the product of all of these things. The eponymous title story opens the book and employs what is becoming a common Lethem device: a narrator knows an interesting character and observes interesting character and witnesses uncommon events etc. It’s a fine, sturdy tale of neighbourly intrigue, with just enough erudition, wit and humour to submerge us in the kind of parochial New York world (if you can say ‘parochial New York world’, I know for many readers and writers, New York is a transfixing universe in which only events with a capital E take place) Lethem has made his own.
‘The King of Sentences’ (a young couple, obsessed with ‘astonishingly unprecedented and charming sentences’ pay a visit to a reclusive writer, the King of Sentences, a Salinger-esque PK Dick we posit, a meeting predicated on their camping out by his PO box) and ‘Traveller Home’ (a hard, brittle story forged from an array of very short sentences – ‘Traveller walking. Journey begins. No dreams this night’ – that flirts with the fantastic and vaguely recalls Scott Snyder’s Wytches in its combination of wolves and weird sisters) are both good reads. ‘Procedure in Plain Air’ (man in a coffee shop observes work men digging hole in road and placing silent man in hole, takes up position as guard, sees old girlfriend) and ‘Their Back Pages’ (slightly comic retelling of Lost viewed through the prism of different styles – comic script, diary, poem, dictionary definitions, etc) are less fun without being necessarily bad. ‘The Porn Critic’ shares the breathless hurry of Motherless Brooklyn but lacking MB’s girth, feels like a story in need of room (there is a man, Kromer, educated, working in a porn shop that demands he review all of the new titles, which means his flat is piled high with porn, a fact that makes visitors to his apartment feel – well, nauseous, combative, puzzled, among other things; one such visit from three friends, one of whom Kromer is crushing on, forms the basis of the tale), ‘The Empty Room’ feels like a nod to Fortress of Solitude (in that it has an air of autobiography about it) and ‘The Pending Vegan, which closes out the collection, may well be its best story (father on meds takes kids to sea world is as much as you need to know – it’s worth a read.
Taken together, yes, ok, it’s something of a mixed bag, but it is also a powerful glimpse into where Lethem is as a writer right now. These stories have appeared previously in the New Yorker and Harpers and the Paris Review. Here, undisputedly, is a successful writer at the top of their game. But does a successful writer know that they are a successful writer? Where does a writer go? Do they want more success? Do they want to make better art? Are they thinking legacy? Are they thinking: screw legacy, I can have some fun now without worrying too much about where the money for the gas bill is coming from. I get the sense (based on nothing but reading the books) that Lethem is more interested in legacy than fun (and one of the appeals of Lethem a decade ago was that he was fun). But fun to Lethem right now might be a story like ‘The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Eye’ – which even on a second read remains obscure and (sorry) not fun. It’s possible that this book marks the halfway point in Lethem’s career, that he will write more less the same amount of books hat he has already written (if he maintains his prolific pace). If that’s the case, it’s going to be really interesting to see where he goes from here.
Any Cop?: One for the fans, certainly. If you’re new to Lethem and wanted to begin with a short story collection, I’d recommend Men and Cartoons. Work your way back to this one.