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This Shape We're In

Jonathan Lethem

McSweeney's Books

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-970-33552-0

Publication Date: 02-05-2001

55 Pages; $9.00

Date Reviewed: 09-30-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Science Fiction, Fantasy, General Fiction

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

It's not clear what kind of book you're going to get when you pick up Jonathan Lethem's 'The Shape We're In'. The cover illustration suggests some bizarrely humorous take on 'Fantastic Voyage'; the back cover text speaks of an endless orgy; the DJ flap contains a quote about absolute black reflecting absolutely. There's no solid information with which to render judgment, no concrete indication that this is science fiction, literature or something in-between. All the specifiers have been neutered. You're buying a piece of fiction by Jonathan Lethem. Abandon all genres, ye who enter here.

'This Shape We're In' is nothing less than a very fine novella by none other than Jonathan Lethem, full of allegory, humor and very, very weird. Written in a broad, first-person narration, this novella once again confirms that it's quite possible to use the tools of science fiction, fantasy and horror to create something that is most resolutely not genre fiction. Like Stanislaw Lem, Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, Lethem creates fantastic, hermetic worlds then describes them with the language of ordinary, everyday characters. Lethem's world in 'The Shape We're In' is part of mystery of the novella. Mr F, the narrator, talks about his environment as if it is as pedestrian as New York, but his world is the interior of an enormous living being. As it happens, the cover illustration is the best clue to the novella's content. With the help of the rather dull Balkan, Mr. F is going on a journey through the Shape, where humans have made themselves as comfortable as ever.

'This Shape We're In' is consistently fascinating and hilarious. Reminiscent of the broader science-fiction oriented jokes explored by Lem in his Ijon Tichy stories, we have a world that is baroquely bizarre, remarkably consistent, cleverly described and constantly referential to the everyday reality that we experience. Lethem has pared this novella down to the point where the writing seems like pure perfection, every word carefully placed, every sight carefully conceived and described. While the writing may be damned near perfect, it's also clearly not for every reader. Lethem's imagination is nothing if not grotesquely exceptional.

The slim McSweeney's Books volume is impeccably printed and when you're done reading the book, the chances are you'll think it's nicely designed as well. Lethem's use of SF tropes to explore a literary landscape is exemplary. What in other hands might seem like a one line joke becomes a multi-layered myth in Lethem's work. Shot through with humor that engenders real laughter, 'This Shape We're In' is weird as all get-out no matter how you approach it. SF hardliners will find Lethem's matter-of-fact voice very odd, while literary fans will find his setting well, very oozing. But for a lightning read, one session, one sitting, 'This Shape We're In' will create for the attentive reader a series of thoughts and emotions you'd never expect to experience as the result of reading a single work. Before you get back to your Boroughs or burrows, you'll be certain to wonder who is seeing what through your own eyes. That's an accomplishment that's hard to match. No matter if it needed -- or even wanted -- to get done. Lethem's done it, and readers who truly want to go where no man has gone before can accompany Lethem. One caution; the reader who steps into the book will not be the reader who steps out.