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Sunday, September 07, 2008
Review: As She Climbed Across The Table
My chiropractor says that she rarely reads more than one book by any author, because she thinks that most people only have - at most! - one good story in them. I'm glad that I don't go into literature with that kind of philosophy, as I'd have missed out on a good number of really entertaining John Irving novels (and a couple of boring ones) and I wouldn't now be traversing Jonathan Lethem's bibliography, from The Fortress of Solitude (wonderful) to Motherless Brooklyn (very engaging), then on to Girl in Landscape (an unorthodox but fascinating foray into Science Fiction) and now to As She Climbed Across the Table.
The first thing that caught my eye when I considered buying another Lethem book was the title of his 1997 book: who calls a book "As She Climbed Across the Table"? What could possibly justify that strange of a title? Was this going to be one of those psychedelic trippy offerings that don't make any sense? I was a little worried, but finally decided that I was mostly curious and trusting of Lethem. So I ordered it, and eventually got around to diving into it.
Let me say right up front: the title is perfect for the story, and makes complete sense once you get about a quarter of the way through it! The events are told in the first person by one of the main participants, and the "she" of the title is the love of his life. You'll discover just why her possible act of climbing across a table could be so note-worthy in the course of watching the distance grow between the two main characters. In fact, the entire thing is really "just" a love story, but perhaps the most unconventional one that I've ever read. More specifically, it's a love triangle involving a man, a woman and a void. It seems like the sort of concept that no writer should be able to pull off, and yet Lethem does so with what seems to be great ease. In the process, he introduces a small stable of eccentric-yet-believable supporting characters, and makes you identify with, and cheer for, a leading man who's well aware of every one of his own many flaws. It has a Science Fiction idea at its core, but like most of the best SF, that idea is just a vehicle for the story, rather than being the sole reason for it.
As always, the language used by Lethem is beautiful and utilitarian at the same time, with no word wasted in the process of drawing the story's world for the reader. Here's a small snippet from early in the book, illustrating the narrator's detachment from what's going on around him:
"Days passed. Classes were taught, seminars held. Papers were handed in, graded, and returned. The team won something, and the trees filled with garlands of toilet paper. It rained, and the toilet paper dripped to the pathways, and into the wiper blades of parked cars. A group of students seized the Frank J. Bellhope Memorial Aquarium to protest the treatment of Roberta, the mannatee savant. The protest was a failure. I called a symposium on the history of student seizure of campus buildings. The symposium was a success. In the larger world, the team invaded something, some hapless island or isthmus. A letter of protest by the faculty was drafted, revised and scrapped. Bins of swollen pumpkins appeared in the produce sections of Fastway and Look 'n' Like."
It's a wonderful book, and one that I could hardly wait to read each night at bedtime. It's also the sort of pleasure that I make sure to draw out a bit, so as not to whip right through it in a day, as I surely could with 200 pages of large-font printing. Two indicators of just how much I enjoyed As She Climbed Across the Table: I've recommended it to my Science Fiction-loving wife, and I've already ordered my next Lethem (Gun, With Occasional Music). After all, he hasn't disappointed me yet!