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As She Climbed Across the Table

Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday / Bantam Doubleday Dell

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-385-48517-4

Publication Date: 03-15-1997

212 Pages; $21.95

Date Reviewed: 10-05-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Science Fiction, General Fiction

06-12-03, 08-25-03, 10-22-03, 11-08-03

Our obsessions with others -- whether they be people, ideas, jobs, religions or the precise nature of reality itself -- are not really about the other. If we find ourselves obsessed, it's not because of some quality in the object of obsession, but rather an absence within ourselves. The quality we admire might not be that which we lack. In most cases it isn't. But whatever it is we lack, you can be certain that our obsession will be stronger the more we feel we ourselves wanting. Lots of torrid romances and silly stalker novels have been built around obsession and lack. Jonathan Lethem's 'As She Climbed Across the Table' is a novel of obsession and absence built around the world of academia and abstract science. Using the toolkit of fantastic and imaginative fiction, he's written an astonishingly clear and lucid examination of obsession and insecurity. It's totally accessible, witty, funny and reads like lightning.

Philip Engstrand is an academic whose study is other academics. Securely set up at Beauchamp University in Northern California, he's fallen in love with Alice Coombs, a particle physicist. Coombs is part of Dr. Soft's team, trying to create a "pocket universe" by duplicating the Big Bang on a microscopic scale. The experiment fails, but in a fascinating fashion. Instead of disappearing, the field stabilizes into a fussy sort of black hole. It's a window of sorts that sits in the center a large table. Some things pass through the window and disappear. Some things simply pass through the window to the other side of the table. The selection seems random. The behavior is not amenable to theory. It's a mystery, and it gets a name: The Lack. In due course, Alice becomes obsessed with the Lack, Philip becomes unreasonably obsessed with Alice, and competition for "Lack Time" becomes intense.

Lethem's prose is as clear and limpid as the field through which pomegranates, argyle socks and the occasional slip of paper with a question for the Lack pass into nowhere. Philip, the narrator of the novel is funny, obtuse and very clever. He wheedles his way into the program and joins in the media feeding frenzy that grows to engulf the Lack. Alice draws away from Philip and towards the Lack. Philip's behavior becomes ever more obsessive and unreasonable, even as the reader witnesses his perfectly logical reasons for engaging in such behavior. Never has self-delusion been conveyed with such crystal clarity.

Lethem is such a skilled writer than few will even notice their thoughts being brought round to some pretty elevated subjects. His setup is so clever that he can speak openly of the nature of obsession and insecurity; their very definition becomes an integral part of the plot, thanks to the Lack. The characters are complex but their motivations and make-up are laid bare by Lethem's prose dissection. Yes, many readers will want to strangle Philip for his simple single-mindedness. Lethem plays with the reader's sympathies by pushing the notion that emotional and scientific fidelity are always admirable. As a "soft" scientist surrounded by hard-headed physicists, Philip does manage to keep his wits about him. He's not about to bow down to their authority. But he crumbles before the fact of his love for Alice.

Paradoxically, one of the true pleasures of this novel is the deft touch Lethem brings to the physics. He conveys it with such crystal clarity that even the science-phobic will understand, and uses it with the skill of a mystery writer who decorates the walls with a lovely collection of guns, knives and grenades. There's no doubt that something will be taken down from the wall. With understatement and simplicity, Lethem manages to turn the process of discovery in the realm of physics into page-turning, toe-tapping enjoyment.

A brilliant setup and light speed delivery require an appropriately powerful conclusion. Lethem is definitely up to the job. The novel binds together a mass of opposites; deep thoughts about human feelings and abstract speculation about the nature of reality into a surprisingly coherent whole. Lethem uses the light prose of a romantic comedy to treat the heaviest subjects. It works incredibly well, bringing light to the speculations and depth to the romance. Lethem makes is all look deceptively easy, even the physics. Is love just another black hole? Lethem provides a fascinating exploration of the scientific and emotional implications in that question. By the time you feel the attraction, by the time you feel the gravity, you've crossed the event horizon and it's too late to ask for an answer.