As She Climbed Across the Table

As She Climbed Across the Table

3.6 8
by Jonathan Lethem

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June 1997

Likened to writers Don DeLillo, Walker Percy, and Raymond Chandler, Jonathan Lethem's third novel is As She Climbed Across the Table; an imaginative exploration of the familiar pain of lost love and found identity, peppered with hilarious gambits and awash with magical realism.

Professor Philip Engstrand is studying the academic

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June 1997

Likened to writers Don DeLillo, Walker Percy, and Raymond Chandler, Jonathan Lethem's third novel is As She Climbed Across the Table; an imaginative exploration of the familiar pain of lost love and found identity, peppered with hilarious gambits and awash with magical realism.

Professor Philip Engstrand is studying the academic environment where particle physicist Alice Coombs and her colleagues have created a hole in the universe. While Philip's study reveals his love for Alice, she becomes infatuated with Lack, the formless void that is her extraordinary discovery. Lewis Carroll's indelible rabbit hole materializes here into the third leg of an unconventional love triangle.

Absent of all qualities, except an obvious preference for argyle socks, lightbulbs, mirrored sunglasses, and a spayed ginger cat, Lack is a flawless, albeit quality-less, lover. In this absurd metaphor come alive, Philip struggles to win back Alice from a rival that resists an identity to hate, compete with, or understand. Jonathan Lethem reinvents the academic satire, and the fairy tale in this luminous love story.

Editorial Reviews

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.

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 

Product Details

The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.59(h) x 0.88(d)

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
Left Bennington College after two years

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