As She Climbed Across the Table

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         Anna Karenina left her husband for a dashing officer. Lady Chatterley left hers for the gamekeeper. Now Alice Coombs has her boyfriend for nothing … nothing at all.  Just how that should have come to pass and what Philip Engstrand, Alice’s spurned boyfriend, can do about it is the premise for this vertiginous speculative romance by the acclaimed author of Gun, with Occasional Music.

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         Anna Karenina left her husband for a dashing officer. Lady Chatterley left hers for the gamekeeper. Now Alice Coombs has her boyfriend for nothing … nothing at all.  Just how that should have come to pass and what Philip Engstrand, Alice’s spurned boyfriend, can do about it is the premise for this vertiginous speculative romance by the acclaimed author of Gun, with Occasional Music.
         Alice Coombs is a particle physicist, and she and her colleagues have created a void, a hole in the universe, that they have taken to calling Lack. But Lack is a nullity with taste—tastes; it absorbs a pomegranate, light bulbs, an argyle sock; it disdains a bow tie, an ice ax, and a scrambled duck egg. To Alice, this selectivity translates as an irresistible personality. To Philip, it makes Lack an unbeatable rival, for how can he win Alice back from something that has no flaws—because it has no qualities? Ingenious, hilarious, and genuinely mind-expanding, As She Climbed Across the Table is the best boy-meets-girl-meets-void story ever written. 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Exceptionally clever. . . . A book of compelling ideas, of intellectual conflict, of human frailty and desire. And it's funny."—Dallas Morning News

"Jonathan Lethem has succeeded in delivering a wonderland on the side of the looking glass," —San Francisco Bay Guardian

"Lethem is opening blue sky for American fiction. . . . He is rapidly evolving into his own previously uncataloged species." —Village Voice Literary Supplement

"Wickedly funny." —Columbus DIspatch  

"An oddball tour de force." —Entertainment Weekly 

Elizabeth Judd

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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A poser of warped, philosophical conundrums whose witty, genre-bending novels are set in dysfunctional worlds of the present and near-future, Lethem (Gun, with Occasional Music) situates his fourth novel on the fictional campus of a Northern California university where a physicist, known as Professor Soft, has accidentally opened a hole in space, a portal to an alternate universe. Lethem's narrator is Philip Engstrand, a professor of anthropology studying "academic environments," who is the jealous boyfriend of Alice Coombs, a professor in Soft's lab at work on the physics of "tiny nothingness." Soft's vacuum, nicknamed Lack, is a gaping void that swallows some items into its universe-from an argyle sock to a grizzled lab cat-but ignores others. It soon becomes a campus sensation and Alice its most ardent enthusiast, but as Alice becomes increasingly obsessed with Lack, she retreats from Philip, who struggles mightily to reclaim her. Lethem's characters aren't emotionally complex: they aren't so much people as mobile talking units tumbling down a rabbit hole of sense and meaning while trying to sort out their personal lives. Yet it's hard not to get caught up in Philip's efforts to rescue Alice from Lack, or be unsettled by what happens in the novel's closing chapter, when he ventures too close to the brink. Lethem's reflections on being and nothingness are tempered throughout with a genuine silliness that helps make this one of the most engaging academic spoofs to emerge in the wake of Don DeLillo and David Lodge. (Mar.)
Library Journal
In this witty but telling new work from the author of The Wall of Sky, the Wall of Eye LJ 8/96, our hapless narrator has completed his dissertation on "Theory as Neurosis in the Professional Scientist" and landed a job at the University of North California at Beauchamp pronouced beach 'em, where he studies academic envirorments, producing "strong but irrelevant work" and falling for physics professor Alice. But Alice is too caught up in Professor Soft's notorious experiment with a vacuum intelligence called Lack to pay her lover much heed, and soon Lack is the real love of her life. This is not your typically insular campus comedy; Lethem has something bigger in mind, and he succeeds admirably in skewering our pretensions, technological or not, in language that gently mocks the way we hide behind jargon. An ironical book that is, ironically, quite poignant; for public and academic libraries.-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
Lethem, a witty spinner of bizarre tales (The Wall of the Sky, 1996, etc.), moves into somewhat more accessible territory with this story of a would-be Alice in Wonderland and the man who would prefer to keep her on this side of the looking glass.

Philip Engstrand, an anthropologist who studies academia, is happily involved with particle-physicist Alice Coombs. When an experiment by Alice's Nobel-winning colleague, Professor Soft, goes awry, a void that may be a portal to an alternate world is created. Before this, Alice has befriended two blind men who maintain an intense, codependent relationship with each other—their names are Ethan and Garth—becoming their friend in part because she believes that Garth's special perceptual abilities may aid in her work. Meantime, Professor Soft's void refuses to disappear and acquires a name, Lack, as well as intelligence and a personality with distinct preferences: It accepts some items offered it (pistachio ice cream, a peach-colored lab cat), while rejecting others. Alice grows emotionally remote and begins spending all of her time in Lack's chamber, and Philip begins to suspect that Alice has fallen out of love with him and in love with Lack. As Philip attempts to comprehend Lack and reconnect with Alice, he becomes entangled with many other characters: The blind men, at Alice's suggestion, move into the apartment she and Philip once shared; Cynthia Jalter, Evan and Garth's therapist, develops a serious crush on Philip; and two professors, a preening Italian physicist and a fussy deconstructionist, offer various absurd explanations (scientific, philosophical, semiotic) for Lack's existence. Eventually, Philip, desperate to win back Alice's love, is forced to confront Lack on his own.

The intriguing, if gimmicky, premise sometimes feels a bit thin, like a Donald Barthelme story stretched to novel length. But Lethem's clear-eyed prose and believably strange people ultimately make for a moving tale of narcissism and need.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375700125
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 621,002
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan  Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is the author of the novels Gun, with Occasional Music; Amnesia Moon; Girl in Landscape; and Motherless Brooklyn, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also written a collection of stories, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Jonathan Allan Lethem (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Left Bennington College after two years

Interviews & Essays

On Wednesday, June 4, welcomed Jonathan Lethem, author of AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE.

Moderator: Welcome to the live events Auditorium! Tonight we're proud to host Jonathan Lethem, author of AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE. Welcome, Mr. Lethem! Thanks for joining us tonight in the auditorium.

Jonathan Lethem: Hello! Thanks for having me here . . .

Catherine from New York: I absolutely loved your book. It's the freshest piece of writing I've read in ages. It's so brilliant that Alice should fall in love with Lack -- an utter void -- both in reality and from the perspective of Philip. What made you think of this? Were you drawing from any kind of personal experience?

Jonathan Lethem: Thanks for the compliment, Catherine. The idea came to me after I'd already decided to write a novel with a campus setting, already decided to write about a love triangle, already decided to write about physics -- the elements were all in place and then Alice's predicament -- and Philip's -- came to me in an intuitive flash. As for autobiographical elements . . . well, those came later, oddly enough. Life imitated art in this case.

Mike from LA: Why are the blind men significant to the novel as a whole? Is it because they are so ingrained in physical reality?

Jonathan Lethem: Mike, first and foremost the blind men are comic relief -- sort of Shakespearean fools to comment on the main action. (They're also Tweedledum and Tweedledee, from Alice In Wonderland). After I'd put them in the book they began to resonate unexpectedly well with the nonsense science I'd invented -- since physics is so concerned with 'observation' -- and they also resonated unexpectedly well with the psychology of the love story. Alice's love for Lack, and Philip's for Alice are both cases of projection -- and of course the blind men are forced by their deficiency to 'project' their entire world . . .

Laura from NYC: Why don't Cynthia and Philip exchange more juices? I so desperately wanted him to just take her up on her offer, but that would have been cheap, I know. Sorry to be so cheesy )

Jonathan Lethem: Ah, Laura. You and so many others have taken me to task for Philip wasting his opportunity with Cynthia Jalter. The problem is that she was meant to be a minor character and her charisma and sexiness just got out of control . . . probably Philip should have slept with her, even WOULD have, if he were real -- but that would have screwed up my plan for the book . . .

Jen from SF: Did you like Bennington? I thought about going there, but ended up at Hampshire instead. Did you find the environment supportive for a creative spirit? Or did it strike you as a space with a lot of phoney intellectualism?

Jonathan Lethem: I didn't last all that long as a student at Bennington, actually. I dropped out in the middle of my sophomore year. Even so, the place had a strong influence on me -- there was a lot I liked and a lot I didn't like. In that it was a somewhat moneyed and jet-setty place, I probably would have been more comfortable myself at a place like  . . .

Richard Green from Cleveland: Is AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE at all autobiographical? Do you identify more strongly with any one character?

Jonathan Lethem: Yes, it's autobiographical, but not in obvious ways. I identify with Philip in many ways -- his enormous self-consciousness, his inability to shut up and let other people figure out what they're feeling, his dazed fascination with academia and science . . . but I find myself in other characters, too. The above-mentioned Cynthia Jalter is one. And Evan, the saner of the blind men.

Marcia from The Island: Are you single, or still hanging out in the void?

Jonathan Lethem: Single AND hanging out in the void, I think . . .

Jainee from Flatiron Bldg.: Can it be that all the science in your book is actually gibberish? It reminds me of acting class, when we would do improvisational work using gibberish . . . Why did you decide to be less 'authentic,' so to speak? Was there ever an instance where you thought, 'I need to know what I'm saying with regards all this science business'?

Jonathan Lethem: Well, Lack as I conceived him is utterly impossible, so my science was going to be nonsense at some level no matter how much smoke I blew . . . I guess I decided to be exuberantly foolishly wrong instead of soberly pedantically wrong, so I went with the transparent gibberish . . . it was a way of playing with words and metaphors stolen from physics, a way to communicate my own bewildered delight in being a layman overwhelmed by contemporary physics.

Mary Jane from OHIO: Why Alice and Wonderland? Why not Snow white or Cinderella?

Jonathan Lethem: Hmmm . . . Snow White and Cinderella are fairy tales, Mary Jane. Whereas the Alice books are very written, like novels. And the deadpan strangeness of Lewis Carroll had an enormous influence on me . . . while those fairy tales didn't particularly.

Rachel from NYC: Who of your contemporaries do you read and enjoy?

Jonathan Lethem: Well, I'm going to take 'contemporaries' to mean not just living authors but somewhat younger ones . . . (anything to narrow down a question that's huge -- I like a lot of fiction!) I'm a big fan of Steve Erickson. Karen Joy Fowler. Nicholson Baker. David Bowman. Uh, let's see . . . I just read and really loved THE GIANT'S HOUSE, by Elizabeth McCracken. I hate doing this, feeling I'm forgetting dozens of names, and they'll all come flooding back in the minute I leave this screen . . . Rick Moody's PURPLE AMERICA was great. John Kessel. Jack Womack. Are these my contemporaries? I'm confused, I'm sure. Anyway, dozens of others . . . my favorite living novelist is Thomas Berger, I think . . . I like Lynda Barry and Beck, too.

Jessa from Jersey: Can you talk about the blind guys? They perplexed me so, but I still got a kick out of them. How much do you think Philip really needed them in order to see things about his own life?

Jonathan Lethem: Well, the truth about the blind guys is that I saw them on a bus in Berkeley one day and had to put them into my book. No kidding. As I said above, I just got lucky that they had so much resonance with the other elements in the book, that they had so much to say in general, since I inserted them flippantly. I had no idea that they'd be so important or even that they'd stick around so far into the book -- as it is they're the last characters who speak any actual lines!

MichaelT from Boston: The marijuana episode with Cynthia was written vividly, do you smoke while writing, or often when you are not?

Jonathan Lethem: Thanks, Michael. I'm always pleased when people say I get altered states of consciousness down right on paper . . . I don't smoke when I work anymore, but I used to . . .

Pia C from Washington: Do you have any musical influences?

Jonathan Lethem: Gosh, tons. Basic ones Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, early Kinks, Beatles, Stones (especially BETWEEN THE BUTTONS), ELO, The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart . . . many more. Recent ones The Silos, My Dad Is Dead, The Go-Betweens, Vic Chesnutt, Vulgar Boatmen, Amy Rigby . . . so many, so many. And I'm obsessed with Doowop, R&B, and Soul . . . Al Green is a god. Did you see the Muhammed Ali movie, "When We Were Kings"? Didn't the footage of James Brown and the Spinners just floor you?

Fil from Washington: Spinning off of the last question, which of the 'classics' do you read and enjoy?

Jonathan Lethem: Can't be sure what you mean by 'classics', but here goes -- I'm very poorly read outside the 20th century, very well read within it -- the oldest authors I've really taken to heart Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Gissing, Kafka, Borges, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler, Flann O'Brien, Karel Capek, Fitzgerald, H.G. Wells, Flannery O'Connor... some more recent or even living writers I think are 'classic' Don Delillo, Muriel Spark, Brian Moore (hmmm, buncha Catholics -- what's up with that?) James Salter, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Walker Percy, Thomas Berger, Kobo Abe, Julio Cortazar . . . whew. I'm wearing myself out trying to do justice to my bookshelves here . . .

colleen from Arcata, CA: This is one of the most incredible, thought provoking, love stories I've ever read. You really hit the mark with the line, 'My heart, to put it more simply, got nostalgic for the present. Always a bad sign.' When is your next book coming out, and is the topic as thrilling?

Jonathan Lethem: Thanks, Colleen. My next book is one I'm very excited about, but it's quite different from TABLE. The working title is GIRL IN LANDSCAPE, and it's deeply influenced by the western films of John Ford, in particular a John Wayne movie called THE SEARCHERS. The book is from the point-of-view of a 13 year old girl on a sort of bizaree frontier who encounters a threatening and charismatic 'father figure' -- a thinly disguised John Wayne. The book is moody and ominous, where TABLE is gabby and charming.

Tom G from Atlanta: SO in the end, do Philip and Alice bridge the gap?

Jonathan Lethem: Tom -- I worked so hard to keep that ambiguous at the end of the book -- why would I blow that effort by answering now? The truth is definitely in the eye of the beholder . . .

Plagie from Mount Vernon: I read an article that you wrote about THE END OF THE ROAD by Barth. I went out and read it curious about the impact that you said it had in you. I am extremely interested to know what you think about making such strong reference to other people's work. Is it considered uncooth or a compliment?

Jonathan Lethem: Well, I certainly hope it isn't uncooth. For me, writing flows so directly out of reading others, out of enthusiastic impulses to respond to work I like, that it would be coy and evasive not to talk about it . . . I know I've sometimes disconcerted people with that eagerness to credit influences . . . but I think the same is probably true of most writers, and that it's just more nakedly true with me. Literature is a conversation.

Hank from LA: Who is your favorite artist, and what is your favorite media . . . i.e. painting, sculpture, photography . . .

Jonathan Lethem: Oh boy. More big questions. First of all -- favorite media? Including film, or not? If you mean in the 'plastic' arts, I'd have to say painting. My father is a painter and I used to do it myself, so I relate to it strongly. A few favorites Di Chirico, Rothko, Bruegel, Ernst, Gorky, Guston . . . I just saw a really amazing show on Greene Street by a guy named Alexis Rockman . . .

Gilles from San Francisco: Who is Shelly Jackson? Did she play a significant role in your writing of the book?

Jonathan Lethem: Shelley is my ex-wife (boy, that always looks strange in cold type). She lived with me during the writing of the first draft, and inspired me in various ways. This has always been her favorite of my stuff. She's a good writer herself, by the way -- try a website for Eastgate Systems and you can probably sample a bit of her hypertext fiction . . .

Jilly from The Desert: How easy is it for someone to fall in love with nothing?

Jonathan Lethem: Sometimes I feel like I do it every day, Jilly. Much easier than falling in love with something, that's for sure.

Moderator: Thanks for so diligently responding to all of our questions. We're grateful for your presence in the event auditorium. Thanks again, and best of luck with future projects.

Jonathan Lethem: Well, thanks again for bringing me in. These were fun questions . . . see you later.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2012

    I do not know...

    Part of me wants to hand this book a glowing five star review. Another part wants to give it one star. Its wonderfully written. The story is unique. And there are passages and chapters in it that are things of beauty. At the same time it feels repetitive and trying too hard sometimes to seem funny without actually being funny. So... it cancels itself out and becomes a lack of its own. I would suggest reading it - its short and worth it. Give it a try!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2014

    Yeah... I dunno.

    Follow our protagonist around a university campus as he slowly loses his girlfriend to a wormhole created in a lab. Once you get past the intriguing punch-line of a plot description, what you buckle up for is a lot of physics terminology paralleling jealousy, projection, loneliness etc. Lethem squeezes mileage out of his out-there concept by creating a couple of peripheral characters who don't add enough to the story to justify their existence, something you don't really find out until it's all over. And then... it's over. Just as it begins to ramp up.
    I can see this functioning better in different scenarios, in longer formats and shorter ones... Ultimately, it's good - or good ENOUGH - but 'satisfying' certainly isn't a word you could use to describe it. Maybe 'incomplete' is.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2007


    This book was great, the first 10-15 pages were a little heavy on the physics terminology, but the story is very cool, I agree with the previous reviewer that the last 2 chapters were very odd, but all in all, a great book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2005

    Hilarious Read

    This was an unexpected pleasure. Lethem's book is funny and smart, and I never knew where it was going to take me next. Some of the characters are unforgettable (Evan and Garth especially), and some of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny (I am the Lorax, I thought, I speak for the trees...). The only place where the book suffers (besides the exhausting physics metaphors) is in the weirdness of the last couple chapters, though the very final paragraph somehow works. I recommend it!

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    Posted July 2, 2010

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    Posted February 17, 2011

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    Posted October 14, 2008

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    Posted March 6, 2012

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