Thursday, January 31, 2008

As She Climbed Across The Table

I haven't read this Jonathan Lethem novel in years, and to my surprise, it's even better than I remembered. It's a love story, it's a science fiction novel, it's an academic comedy. I wish I'd written it.

Here's my favorite bit--one of my favorite bits of anything, when you get down to it:

Georges De Tooth was our resident deconstructionist, a tiny, horse-faced man who dressed in impeccable pinstriped suits, spoke in a feigned poly-European accent, and wore an overlarge, ill-fitting, white-blong wig. He could be seen hurrying between the English department and his car, an enormous leather briefcase gripped in both arms as if it were the cover of a manhole from which he had just emerged. Or sitting in faculty meetings, silent and pensive, chewing on the stem of an unloaded pipe, often held with the bowl facing sideways or down. The library housed a dozen or so of his slim, unreadable volumes, as well as a thick anthology of savage attacks by his enemies. He lived in a room at the YMCA. He had for fifteen years.
That's perfect, in my view. Lethem, like all great writers, is uneven, and I've kvetched about his stuff here before--but when he's good, he's great. This book actually has more heft than I remember--not physical heft, mind you--and I had completely forgotten the ending, which accomplishes the near-impossibility of living up to expectations.

It's not even worth saying what this novel is about. I could be a wag and say it's about nothing--way more about nothing than Seinfeld ever was--but that, as No. 2 used to say, would be telling. Suffice it to say that it's about a physics experiment that turns into a philosophical conundrum that turns into a romance. And that it contains the beautifully awful line, "Something happened to my penis."


AC said...

"Something happened to my penis."

I wasn't looking for a book to read right now (got my plate full, thank you) but how can I let that pass?

I just have to know...

Anonymous said...

It's from a hilarious sex scene. Or, rather, anti-sex-scene.

I'm teaching this book in the Weird Stories class this coming Wednesday...or more likely it will be teaching itself.

aos said...

Bizarrely enough, and though I have tried, I cannot stick with anything Lethem has written since Girl in Landscape. His "hot" books leave me cold.

Anonymous said...

I'm kinda with you there, I must admit. I liked Motherless Brooklyn OK, and I liked the breezy style of the new one--but I could never get into the more baroque elaborations of Fortress of Solitude, and those other books ultimately fall short. For me, it's all about As She Climbed and Girl In Landscape.

I admire his adventurousness, I must say. I am quite jealous of his career--he's done very well doing whatever weird shit he likes. In any event, when you're all over the map, you're not going to please everyone, and the people you do please will not be pleased by everything. But I still think it's the way to be.

G. C. Munroe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G. C. Munroe said...

I haven't read this book, but did recently finish White Noise. A few months ago I read Lucky Jim. Loved both.

Given the very close affiliation that authors have to academia today, I've wondered why we're so short on campus novels. You'd think we'd have academic satires out the nose. Especially those that target MFA programs. (Talk about low hanging fruit...)

The best answer I can think to explain this? Careerism. Authors are afraid of sabotaging their future as professors. Because truthfully, regardless of how many disqualifiers you post at the start of the novel, there's nothing that that's going to dissuade the prig that heads your English department that the prig that heads your fictional English department is totally unrelated to the party of the first part.

How would you explain to your colleagues that you're working on a contemporary version of Lucky Jim? Would you fib, telling them you're working on a dummy project? Or tell the truth and watch their egos quiver?

Hate to keep jabbing at an obvious sore spot, but I think that this is one clear example - if only a minor one - of how academia places limits on expression.

Am I totally off?

rmellis said...

The satire is just *too* easy in academic novels. I really liked Jane Smiley's Moo, though I don't remember a single bit of it. Francine Prose's Blue Angel was too familiar -- I felt like I'd already read it. Denis Johnson's The Name of the World is kind of an academic novel, and it's okay. Straight Man by Richard Russo was also okay, but I feel like there's something too comfy about his prose.

Alison Lurie's latest, Truth and Consequences, is also an academic novel -- I liked it quite a bit, especially because I recognized so much of it... a bit of a light read, as all of them seem to be.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Alison L.'s book takes place across the street from my office!

Grant, I don't think there's any way anyone's academic career could be sabotaged by writing a satiric academic novel. I've never met an English department that took itself that seriously...people's egos are pretty sturdy in the ivory tower.

Indeed, I don't think my life will be complete unless I write one. Lethem's is great in that it reconceives the genre...I'd have to come up with a weird enough idea to justify giving myself over to an overworked genre.

Other good ones..."Stoner," "Wonder Boys," "Straight Man," "Pnin," "The Trick of It."

G. C. Munroe said...

Thanks for the recommendations. Two others have mentioned Straight Man, so I might pick that up next.

Regarding academics: I've gotten a different impression of the warring egos, the politics at play. Especially when writers are added to the mix. Granted, my stance isn't firsthand, but based on hearsay - stories told by friends who've recently graduated from MFA programs, or from old undergrad professors. Based on this - as much as I believe that you haven't been witness to petty characters during your time in academia - I'm skeptical of the claim that a satire of the system wouldn't be taken personally by some who might negatively impact the author's teaching career.

But hell, I'm skeptic by nature.

rmellis said...

Speaking as an outsider to academia... I notice that writers seem to have a kind of Teflon coating compared to lit people and other academics. Lurie regularly skewers her colleagues, and I suspect they're a little bit pleased to see themselves in a book. Hell, I'd take any amount of skewering for that honor! How fun would that be?

But I don't doubt that there are vicious departments out there...

Anonymous said...

Sure, there are egos! But people are supposed to challenge each other in academia...disagreement might foster personal resentment, but you can't deny someone tenure because they made fun of you in a book.

It's funny, I never thought I would be an academic--and I guess, temperamentally, I'm not one. But ever since I started teaching, I've often found myself in the position of defending the institution. It's easy to mock academia, because it's a traditional, heirarchical system that is supposed to support creativity and individual achievement--a seeming contradiction. And when you're not in it, it's comforting to think that they're all just a bunch of insecure, socially awkward snobs who actually don't know shit--just THINK they do.

There's some truth in the socially-awkward part, perhaps--but the rest, not so much. It's a system with a lot of flexibility built into it, to allow for the quirks and crazy ideas of real people. When you hear right-wingers blame the erosion of moral values on literature professors, it's because the system fosters all kinds of strange, aberrant, marginal ideas--some of which don't really pan out, some of which end up being hugely important to our culture. But outside the context of the academic crucible, many of them sound crazy, and hateful people grasp onto that, and hoist themselves up by what they consider to be others' foibles.

The fact is, most successful experiments are actually failed experiments. Academia exists to give unusual people the opportunity to overreach. This is why the academic comedy is such an irresistible genre--all those shy eccentrics and their wild secrets. But I want to try to dissuade you from thinking it's all a big clash of egos. It is, but it's a lot of other stuff too. The reason you hear stories like that from your friends is because they're FUNNY. They're more likely to amuse you by telling you about Professor Mushman and how he EXPRESSLY FORBIDS any story from opening with dialogue because he thinks it's a ripoff of his prizewinning 1976 novel (the only one he ever wrote), Spoken In English...than they are to tell you about a fascinating talk they heard on Robbe-Grillet, or this awesome symposium they attended on film and culture.

In a way, you're preaching to the choir. I'm skeptical of academia. But MOST academics are skeptical of academia. That's how the system works--with doubts raising questions, which in turn foster innovation. When egos clash, that's the sign of intellectually healthy activity.

That's my $.02, anyway...don't come crying to me when you get fired for your haiku mocking the dean.

rmellis said...

OK, I mentioned Straight Man but I have to admit I think it's a little... er... easy on itself, or pleased with itself, or something. Read it, though, and let me know what you think.

Mr. Saflo said...

It's been far too long since anything's happened to my penis.

Mr. Saflo said...

::dodges vegetables::

Mr. Saflo said...

Try the veal, folks.

I'll be here all week.

Mr. Saflo said...

Returning to the subject at hand, I thought this one was mainly a success when looked at as a story about heartbreak, in which case it was honest and often poignant. Some of the, uh, science-fictiony stuff seemed almost vestigial, particularly that admittedly interesting bit about the blind fellow whose brain could still actually see, or...something to that effect. Even when he's kind of muddled, though, I still cut Lethem slack, since he's always readable and funny and has floored me on several occasions.

Anyway, back to the weiner jokes.

Max said...

White Noise, Pnin, Lucky Jim -- I agree, all those are very good.
But Russo is a plodding windbag.
Good novels about the writing life: Gissing's New Grub Street (prophetic in its portrayal of the successful climber, Jasper Milvain) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (at the end Orwell has his protagonist stuff his manuscript through the grating of a city drain).
Why does the word "weird" appear so often in these posts? Weirdness is not necessarily a virtue.
What else? I agree with Rhian's disinclination to read books about reading. If you like reading so much, you should be reading a novel -- entering someone's creative universe.

Anonymous said...

I agree about "Straight Man"--I was just listing academic novels I've read, and I hadn't noticed that Rhian had already mentioned it. It's the least good of the ones on that list. Still fun, though. "Wonder Boys" is also pretty seriously flawed, but is often very funny. "Stoner" is sad and wonderful--recommended by Ed.

Weirdness not necessarily a virtue: correct.

rmellis said...

I disagree. Weirdness is a virtue, if only a small one.

But I'm biased. The greatest compliment I ever received, from my trigonometry teacher: "You know why I like you, Ellis? You're weird."


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