Is the ideal lover a blank slate, a cipher upon whom we can inscribe our own idiosyncratic desires and whims? That's what Jonathan Lethem suggests in his latest novel, a sly send-up of academia and a funny tale of passion gone awry. Philip Engstrand, a professor who's nicknamed the Dean of Interdiscipline for studying his fellow professors, is in love and living with Alice Coombs, a particle physicist specializing in "the pursuit of tiny nothingness." When Alice and her colleagues create a void that's a portal to a new universe, Alice projects her private desires onto her creation, dubbed "Lack." Soon, Alice is romantically obsessed with Lack and Philip is history.
Invisible and silent, Lack resides in the eye of the beholder, "his" chief appeal a sublime indifference to his audience. Lack keeps his admirers guessing, demonstrating marked and unfathomable preferences for specific objects; he accepts a salad spinner, a pomegranate and a lab cat, while rejecting calamine lotion, a photo of the Rosetta stone and, ultimately, Alice herself. To his credit, Lethem views Lack as an actual character, not a literary trope. Although his explanation of how Lack works is pseudo-scientific double-talk worthy of Cliffy the mailman on Cheers, Lethem doesn't retreat from his own silliness, devoting the final chapters to Philip's confrontation with the void.
Unlike those who milk a clever idea like they'll never have another, Lethem is a profligate writer, tossing off hundreds of pointed observations quickly and casually. Lethem's nonchalance conveys sentimentality succinctly, allowing him to be mushy and philosophical without losing comic momentum. Philip feels "the first pangs of my coming loss. My heart, to put it more simply, got nostalgic for the present. Always a bad sign." At the same time, Lethem balances the romantic longings of Philip for Alice and Alice for Lack against the bathos of his comic minor characters, all of whose lives are consumed or contorted by alter egos. There are two blind men who talk compulsively, mapping their environments for each other; a physicist whose emotions are recorded "in proxy" on his grad student's face; and a psychotherapist who studies obsessive coupling and tries to pair off with Philip.
As She Climbed Across the Table boisterously mixes styles and genres -- it's sci-fi, it's slapstick, it's a comedy of academic manners -- without hitting a false note. My prediction? Lethem, who has published two novels and a book of short stories to thunderous silence, has now made his own presence known and will escape the literary void forever. -- Salon