I've been on a Jonathan Lethem kick lately, ever since I read Gun, With Occasional Music and realized that J.Leth. in fact is not functionally identical to J.Franz., who writes Boring but Important Novels of Family Angst.* In fact, in both Gun and Girl In Landscape, Lethem is brilliant at taking genre conventions (of Chandler-esque detective fiction and classic Westerns, respectively), adding bizarrely fascinating sci-fi elements while avoiding the excessive discursive explanations common to many sci-fi novels, and plunking down self-aware but non-angsty protagonists in the middle.**
As She Climbed Across the Table, which I just finished, also takes a recognizable genre--the campus novel--and adds a sci-fi element: a physicist has created a Lack in his laboratory, a kind of hole in the universe, and the Lack demonstrates signs of intelligence. He (it soon becomes gendered) accepts into himself only certain items, apparently without rhyme or reason, and rejects others. The narrator's girlfriend, also a physicist, falls in love with Lack, becoming more and more obsessed with him. The narrator, a professor of anthropology, grows cranky and worried in response, and in fact one of the things I disliked about the novel is the narrator's occasional lapses into narcissistic, sexist White Noise territory.
While I'd give the novel a qualified recommendation overall, I'm bothered by Lethem's clear use of a stereotype in portraying the one deconstructionist professor interested in Lack, when just as clearly he investigates many of the actual philosophical problems that deconstruction brings up over the course of the novel via other characters and plot developments. The prof in question is described as "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-blond wig." He writes "slim, unreadable volumes" subject to "savage attacks by his enemies," and speaks in reductive simplifications of high deconstruction that could be interpreted charitably if they weren't spoken by a character we're clearly meant to despise. At the university's Christmas party, he's surrounded by fawning female students.
But Lethem takes a number of deconstructionist (and -ish) questions completely seriously: how does Lack structure everything and everyone else around him? What does it mean to fall in love with something of your own imagining? (This latter question is, again, parodied by a professor of gender studies, who makes statements like "It's natural to love the Other" seem totally unreasonable by virtue of her self-righteousness.)
I'm a little mad that Lethem knows that these are real questions, but he puts them in the mouths of people we're obviously meant to distrust and not take seriously. It seems like he means to make fun of the culture of academic seriousness, which is all well and good, but getting rid of seriousness doesn't mean that philosophical questions must only ever be addressed obliquely. Simply saying "the death of the author" shouldn't make you a laughingstock.
This frustrates me much more here than in, say, White Noise, exactly because Lethem clearly knows these are interesting questions--the whole novel is evidence of that. So it's not that I'm mad at the novel, or want to stick up for deconstruction as such in the face of a perceived attack. But the characterizations simply feel gratuitous, and I'm left feeling like either I'm missing something, or that Lethem just made a mistake.
*OK, I haven't actually read it, but the two pages I read in the bookstore were boring enough to put me off. And no, I didn't think the two were actually the same person, just of similar ilk.
**I haven't read Motherless Brooklyn yet, but I'm assured of its similar type of greatness by reliable sources. I had been postponing it because of yet another mix-up, this one between MB, which is about a private eye with Tourette's, but has little to do with being motherless in Brooklyn, and Fortress of Solitude, which is an autobiographical novel ABOUT growing up motherless in Brooklyn. Come on, you can see why I was mistaken.