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Book Review: Lucky Alan and Other Stories

By (April 21, 2015) No Comment

Lucky Alan And Other Storieslucky alan cover

by Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday, 2015

The second story in Jonathan Lethem’s latest collection may be self-admonishing. His protagonists are bookstore clerks harboring a secret passion for sentences — to them, fine sentences are the only things that matter. They write of course, but they also worship: they worship an otherwise obscure novelist whom they have anointed “the king of sentences.” They research their king and travel to his town. There they fall afoul of a local policeman. They explain their stalkerish errand and, oddly, the policeman shows more concern for them than for their quarry.

“He’s the greatest maker of sentences in the United States of America,” I said.

“I’ve had a look,” the chief said. “He’s not bad. I’m just wondering if you ever troubled with the content of his books, as opposed to just the sentences.”

“Sentences are content,” Clea said.

But they’re not. Some of Lethem’s own fictions have suffered from this misidentification. When a glittering throng of clauses occasionally hijacks one of his narratives — the writerly equivalent of mugging for the camera — prettiness can become faux-profundity.

Lethem’s two sentence-lovers finally meet their king, offering him their novel manuscripts, their services, and, if he wants them, their bodies. He perceives that these harmless fanatics need to be firmly repulsed if he is to recover his privacy. So he invites them to meet him in a hotel room. He asks them to disrobe and give him their clothes. He tears the clothes into tiny shreds: “the hands that had forged the supreme sentences in contemporary American writing were now dismembering the syntax of my underwear.” And then the king leaves. The story ends. Readers are left to imagine Lethem’s clerks trying to get home without any clothes and perhaps connecting their King’s reminder about the relation between clothes and bodies to their own ideas about the relation between sentences and content.

Self-admonishing or not, this story illustrates Lethem’s habitual stance. He rejects certain literary pieties while, at the same time, keeping them alive. He draws unabashedly on his love for pulp and comic books, but he is also successful among the literary cognoscenti. He has no time for the merely pretty sentence but remains rooted in the folk art of his country and the language of the streets; still, he makes sure many of his sentences are pretty and all of them are at least slick. His productions contain carefully planned whiplash modulations from the lowest- to the highest-brow material. In Lucky Alan and Other Stories, we find a tragedy of Manhattanite manners and a story about werewolves, a sex comedy and an absurdist yarn about seven imaginary comic book characters stranded on an island where they eat thought bubbles and peruse their own back issues.

Moderating conflicting class- or cultural impulses is not merely the form of Lethem’s fiction, but has often been its theme. In perhaps his best known novel, The Fortress of Solitude, the compellingly torn protagonist combines a whitebread paternity with an upbringing on the streets of Brooklyn, apprentices to a graffiti artist and attends a preppie college, is the uncool kid on the block and the city-hardened initiate in the quad. In Lucky Alan, Lethem’s split literary personality is mostly partitioned between stories; but one story, “The Porn Critic,” takes up the theme again.

In “The Porn Critic,” most of the friends of Kromer, the main character, are “graduate students and legal proofreaders,” but he happens to have a job at a sex shop and to be the frequent companion of a dissolute trust-funder named Greta. She drags him along to parties where the debauchery is well beyond his taste or experience. He is one of Lethem’s split heroes:

From Greta’s many aspiring transsexual acquaintances Kromer remained terrified of accepting even a blow job. None of them could have guessed what aura they’d transferred to Kromer. The process was mysterious. A book nerd, a clerk, Kromer sat failing even to drink very much among young blacks in stuffed brassieres who the following day would be late for beauty school or, in some cases, Intro Soc or Psych at Queens College. Their special language–“shemale,” “pre-op”–made them a nerd species, too, Kromer understood. Yet, the next day, attending afternoon breakfasts with his wondering cohort of PhD candidates and proofreaders, Kromer played the part of Rasputin or Gurdjieff, expected to launch foul seductions or even abductions.

Yet despite his unearned reputation for dissipation, Kromer really has only one goal: “What Kromer wanted to injure was the image of himself as debauchery’s emissary.” In this funny story, he futilely attempts to improve himself in the eyes of a prudish and judgmental young woman — but haplessly ends up in a threesome with his intended audience’s best friend:

He might as well have been at the counter of Sex Machines, his life a site where others came to test their readiness for what they feared were their disallowed yearnings. […] No one could understand the little sensitivities that went into making Kromer’s sort of sleazeball.

But, “whether that left room enough for Kromer’s own yearnings remained unclear.” To me, this sounds like another bit of self-commentary. I have always wondered whether Lethem feels a certain inhibition in his writing, an inhibition about fully indulging his own literary yearnings. Perhaps the most salient split in Lethem’s own literary personality – one both he and the critics like to point out — is between literary fiction and science fiction; he has earned more than his fair share of praise for his mashups (the superhero theme in Fortress of Solitude, for example), but I, personally, have never been that impressed by his marriage of science fictional metaphors and props to the comedy of manners.

Lethem doesn’t straddle the borders of two genres or two audiences as equitably as his reputation suggests: he camps firmly in that territory known as the literary. His most tributary pieces have a tinge of irony. His enthusiasm for the popular genres is a nostalgic passion. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, but it tends to take the form of homage or parody — poor vehicles for the delight and respect of a real enthusiast. Whenever Lethem borrows from comic books or the pulps, he distances himself with comedy, signaling to the cognoscenti that he doesn’t actually confuse genre tropes with literature. Yet he returns to them again and again, with too much insistence and detail for us to write off his interest as a PR-move. Still, I find Lethem’s borrowings from genre a little too much like gimmicks disguised as appreciations. Where he excels, on the other hand, is at the straight up, undisguised gimmick.

“The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear,” is a story about blogging and internet trolling. It also is a blog, written in the reverse chronological order familiar to habitués of the interwebs. It’s fun and ridiculous and twee and great, and it really does capture the dismaying experience of picking up a troll in one’s very own corner of the internet:

At certain times I persuade myself an admirable stasis is attained: my blog abides, adapts, is made worldly by its users. At other moments I feel we three [himself, his one good-faith reader, and the troll] stalk one another: prey, and predator that have each come under my roof, my own role unknown as yet.

The best of Lethem’s stories are neither gimmicks nor appreciations, but instances of the contemporary realism he clearly often wishes to exceed. (Unlike Michael Chabon, whose resemblance to Lethem in the matter of combining the literary and the pulpy could not be stronger, Lethem seems unable to really let himself go when writing with his favorite genres in mind: he will never win a Hugo award for his ventures into science fiction.) He knows this, I think, and therefore his collection takes it title from the one work of straightforward realism in the whole book.

“Lucky Alan” is a story-within-a-story. It is framed by the narrator’s recollection of an intermittent acquaintance, “the legendary theater director Sigismund Blondy,” who goes out to a movie each day and who, therefore, often used to run into the narrator at cinemas and go out for a drink with him afterward. The narrator found this often-glimpsed but never-plumbed character intriguing but remote:

Blondy was like a skater up his own river, a frozen ribbon the rest of us might have glimpsed through the trees, from within a rink where we circled to tinny music.

When Blondy suddenly drops out of the narrator’s life for a few months, the narrator becomes concerned and decides to track him down to find out if anything has gone wrong. He gets his number, calls him up, finds out he’s moved. They plan to meet. There, the irrepressible Blondy surprises the narrator — as always — by whipping out a questionnaire full of random, odd queries, giving the narrator the impression he has somehow fallen into a script, a performance, written by Blondy, that has a definite, if obscure, destination: “I wondered if I heard the sound of a trap snapping shut. Had I delivered my designated line? Were we perhaps getting to the point?”

Indeed they were: and it turns out Blondy wants to tell the narrator a story of his own.

Blondy’s story is about Alan Zwelish. Blondy stands to Zwelish in approximately the same relation the narrator stands to Blondy: Zwelish is an occasional encounter that intrigues Blondy, stirs him to speculate:

Blondy watched this proud, drum-tight personality fidget past him on the street and began projecting; he couldn’t help it: an unfinished degree in journalism, concerned married sisters in New Jersey or Connecticut (but probably New Jersey), weights but no cardio, aggrieved blind dates, Cigar Aficionado and Stereophile, takeout menus, acres of porn.

Blondy decides to make Zwelish’s acquaintance as a personal challenge. It’s not easy. Zwelish is prickly, awkward. Once Blondy succeeds in establishing a kind of rapport, he finds that Zwelish turns from stand-offishness to insulting competitiveness. But Blondy enjoys the man’s oddity, and remains very patient with him, which only spurs Zwelish to find new ways to get under his skin, to comment on Blondy the way Zwelish (correctly) knows Blondy is commenting on him in his head: “a bruising friendship, if it was one.” In particular, Zwelish appears envious of Blondy’s easy ways with women.

Yet Sigismund Blondy, being who he was, found Zwelish all the more precious for his touchiness. 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.

An opportunity arises. Zwelish purchases himself a mail-order bride. Blondy takes it as a challenge to treat Zwelish as if he possessed the dignity he does not. He will treat Alan Zwelish as lucky — though he is really pitiable — as an experiment in overcoming the man’s resistance to friendship.

But it all backfires. Zwelish ends up conceiving a — predictable — jealousy for Blondy’s easy manners with his mail-order bride and cuts him out. Not only that, but Zwelish begins a campaign against Blondy on their block. He takes every opportunity to gossip about him with everyone who lives or works in their vicinity. Blondy suddenly find himself — the flaneur of human fauna — on display, scrutinized everywhere. He gives up on Zwelish and lives, himself, an increasingly uncomfortable life. Then he gets the news that during his period of withdrawal from Zwelish, the man has died. He goes to visit Zwelish’s bereaved mail-order bride. She tells him she hated Zwelish. And then, unexpectedly,

Blondy began weeping, openly, pouring out stuff he didn’t know was inside, matters of his fear of death generally, as well as rage at Alan Zwelish for having pushed him away and at himself for having let himself be pushed.

So he moves. The old block has become intolerable.

It turns out this whole interlude with Blondy was Blondy’s roundabout way of explaining his disappearance from the narrator’s life.

He fled Seventy-eighth Street afraid he’d made it a stage for theatrics. In his nightmares he might have heard this accusation, delivered in the recycling lady’s voice: […] that he treated others as figures in a shadow play.

The pleasing recursiveness of this story fascinates me. Is Blondy admonishing the narrator, indirectly suggesting that his interest in Blondy is like Blondy’s in Zwelish, the interest of a spectator at a play? Avoid my mistake, Blondy might be saying: your interest in me makes you too much like me. To experience the lives of others as, primarily, entertainments for the self seems deeply unethical — and an ever-present danger to the writer of fiction. But below this obvious moral the story reveals something more tragic: the emptiness of the watcher made self-aware, of the spectator looking in a mirror. Disconnected from the passionate stupidity of real commitment — a disconnection prerequisite for the kind of charm that Blondy has, a distance that might be necessary for amused observation and witty characterization — will you find yourself facile, your life meaningless, at the end? Will you be nothing but your sentences?

Uncomfortable questions, these — for Blondy, for the narrator, and for Lethem. Again, “Lucky Alan” bears a tinge of self-admonishment. This whole collection has the aspect of a mirror Lethem has held up to himself, and it is this self-interrogation which has always kept me returning to Lethem’s work, despite his many flaws. His facility may tend to the facile, the art he champions may suffer from the mockery of his attention (he might be said to stand to science fiction rather as Blondy stands to Zwelish), he may be overly self-aware, split, a paradox, and a little pretentious to boot: but he knows it, and that knowledge is the content his sentences gild.