Lucky Alan and Other Stories
Random House sent me a copy of Jonathan Lethem’s new collection of short stories, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, because I asked for it. I’ve never read much of his work, despite my enduring admiration for his article about The Ecstasy of Influence, and decided it was time to read a few of his stories.
I wondered if he’s gotten too used to longer forms when I was reading the title story, which is first in the volume. Characters are sketched, rather than drawn. Plot is suggested, rather than set up. Words stand in for other words, and some of the observations that get me interested in the situation are stereotypical, like this one:
“He constituted a test that Blondy, who’d sledded on pure charm through so many controversies, couldn’t pass. He adored Zwelish for causing him, at this late date, to want to do better, try harder, give more.”
I wonder–is “sledded” used merely as an alternative to the cliché of “skated”?
Nevertheless, Lethem still has the power to turn a phrase and evoke an image. Even in the title story, one in which two men communicate a willingness to talk by such gestures as lowering a shoulder when they pass on the street, I love the observation that “here was the full horror of a relationship that both relied on chance meetings and was subject to utter estrangement: what you could miss in an interval. In this case, the whole end.” It’s true of these two men, and it’s true of most relationships conducted over the internet.
After reading the title story, I put the book on my bedside table and began reading a story before going to sleep each night. “The King of Sentences” is mildly amusing, abut a couple of undergraduates it’s easy to imagine as Kenyon students meeting their favorite writer, who they have crowned “the King of Sentences.” He cares nothing for this. One example of a sentence from this story shows you how style meets sense: “The King of Sentences only wrote, beavering away himself on a dam of quintessence, while wholly oblivious of public indifference and of a sales record by now likely descending to rungs occupied by poets.”
The style of “Traveler Home” both grew on me and became more normal with the number of others with whom the traveler interacted. Early on, alone with his dog, he
“trudges hip-deep in drifts at the side of the house. Raises broom into swirl, rattles ice on heaped dish, scoops snow from concavity. Icicles clatter to shards deep in snowbank. Dish freed, adequate. Through own window like yeti peeper, Traveler spots lit screen, image rescued. Distant stratospheric signal unblocked from local occlusion of particles. Unfathomable mysteries of science best ignored. Sleepless detective restored oblivious to malfunctional interlude. Empty rooms equally oblivious, carrying on without. Now only remains the Terrier’s peeing, then inside, cleave to warmth, boots-puddle melting by vent.”
At the end of the story, though, “Traveler raises his hand again and rolls up the window, drives, on, toward town.” His interactions with others, while far from normal, have nevertheless normalized the point of view from which his story is told.
In “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear,” the narrator tells the story of how “I lay in wait inside the entranceway of my blog.” I’d like to know exactly where that is, wouldn’t you? If I lay in wait for you inside the entranceway of this blog, would it be behind the gate to the graveyard, or after the word “Lethem’s”?
This volume offers well-observed situations and interesting ideas, good fodder for strange dreams.