Thursday, April 10, 2008

j. leth. and lack

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.


Sisyphus said...

I gave my friend _Amnesia Moon_ because she loved _Gun, With Occasional Music_, and then borrowed it back from her and read it. :)

I liked it but found it a rather weak novel. I thought _Motherless Brooklyn_ was amazing and much more well-constructed than AM, which my friend thought was less uneven than Gun (his first, I think). So he's getting better with his efforts and you're probably right to read his best stuff last.

I hate that grad school effect of having read someone's best work in undergrad and then going off to study that person in more depth and discovering that the rest of the stuff is kinda meh. It happens so often.

That means I've been holding off on the other Lethems I haven't hit yet, since I fear I'll be disappointed after MB. On the other hand, he has one more novel out since then.

kermitthefrog said...

I'd definitely recommend both Gun and Girl In Landscape--especially the latter, which I guess chronologically comes after As She Climbed, but Gun is just a lot of fun, in a bleak noir-ish way. Girl is pretty fantastic -- it does the coming-of-age (motherless, btw) thing in the context of a Mars Western. I've also read his short story collection, which was my least favorite, but mainly because they're more horror stories and I just don't like the genre as much.

Definitely looking forward to MB.

JD said...

I *have* read J. Franz, and Oh, The Hatred I Have For That Novel.

This is intriguing, though I can't tell whether I want to read more Lethem or not. I have read Motherless Brooklyn, and half loved it, and half hated how it seemed to me to try to become an Important Novel in the latter half of the book (this is purely subjective judgment on my part).

My uncertainty has kept me away from Fortress of Solitude, too -- despite my having heard J. Leth reading from it. I can't put my finger on why, though. Maybe it's the white male narcissism factor? (though I haven't read White Noise, either, so don't know exactly what you mean).

Then again, I am tremendously resistant to about 95% of contemporary adult fiction, and I can't put my finger on why.

But this is clearly something that I need to post about myself, instead of nattering on about it on your blog. Thank you for reminding me that this is something that I need to keep thinking about.

kermitthefrog said...

Oooh, I can go on at length about 95% of contemporary adult fiction! Let's do it!

And yes, Fortress of Solitude seems dangerously close to that territory. But the earlier books don't try to be Important, so perhaps we are collectively sketching a nice little J. Leth. trajectory here?

JD said...

As soon as I get the damn exams done, yes, let's! Maybe I'll discover what my problem is.