The minor book from a major writer is something we see less than we used to — industry pressure, having created something of a blockbuster approach to writers, means we see them really only from those writers who, having been assured the attention of readers in their marquee books, also have the energy and the desire to pursue artistic byways. The result, when it occurs, is often a chance to see a gifted writer at play, sometimes wandering down the road not taken, sometimes offering a rough draft of the future.
Jonathan Lethem’s newest book of stories, Lucky Alan, is in something of this vein. This is the fourth of his short story collections, and his twentieth book in twenty years. To the extent Lethem has a knowable arc as a fictionist, it is that he pushed the boundaries of genre fiction and literary fiction toward each other in his first books, with Girl in a Landscape and Motherless Brooklyn, helping to usher in our current moment, where genre crossing is no longer radical or fringe but is instead welcome — almost mainstream. After he challenged the idea that the only literary mode in America was realism, he moved firmly into literary fiction with novels like The Fortress of Solitude and Dissident Gardens. He has more than earned our attention for any of his minor works — as well as a moment to experiment as he considers where to go next.
The stories here as a group do not to cohere into a single, recognizable aesthetic shift, though they are predominantly riffs on the situation of the straight white man who, if he has a country, is usually American. There is in fact an American Calvino feeling to the whole collection — some stories are written in fantastical modes, some are set in something like the present, a few set in that newest historical fiction setting, the 1980s and ’90s — the protagonist in “The Porn Critic,” for example, reviews porn on VHS unironically and speaks of video stores. One of my favorites, “The Empty Room,” even has the aesthetic of the of the minimalist first-person fiction common in the 1980s, and at the end, the narrator introduces his sister to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon.” There is scant mention of cell phones, email, the Internet, or social media, no matter the period, though in “The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear,” a blog comes to life and threatens any potential readers.
Lethem’s feeling for the contemporary moment appears at its best in the first and last stories, “Lucky Alan” and “Pending Vegan,” and with their settings, we have the collection’s single recognizable arc, one that takes us from New York City to California, mirroring the writer’s life. “Lucky Alan” is something of a tribute to a vanishing New York, the story of an actor and the famous theater director, Sigismund Blondy, whom he befriends shortly after auditioning for him (Dianne Wiest makes a cameo). They run into each other at films in theaters in their Upper East Side neighborhood, and these repeated sightings become occasions for conversation. When Blondy fails to reappear as usual, the narrator, who by now has quit acting, pursues him — even calling him at home, an essential violation of this friendship’s unspoken terms. On this call, he learns Blondy has moved downtown but would like to see him. They make plans — momentous — when Blondy tells him he has a questionnaire he needs him to answer.
This leads to the unveiling of the titular Lucky Alan, and I won’t ruin the story by telling you how this happens. But in Blondy and his actor narrator, Lethem deftly skewers the sort of person who loves being obscure for the sake of being obscure — as if all of the fun in knowing him is in his being only partly understood. The story itself is not urgent somehow, strangely delicate in the way it is made out of obscure films and theatrical references, and the single biggest pleasure in it is the moment when Lucky Alan’s wife appears — and speaks a single, unforgettable line. She is the story’s moment of truth. The pretentiousness of the men in the story is suddenly revealed to be like the drifting smoke it was all along.
If we are voting about what we want to see more of from this assemblage, if there is a rough draft of the future of Lethem in this book, I place my hopes firmly on “Pending Vegan,” the final — and distinctly Californian — story in this collection. Here our famous pasticheur drops his mixers and gives us straightforward social satire, the story of a father in withdrawal from antidepressants as he accompanies his wife and daughters to SeaWorld. He is seeing a therapist for help with an unspecific crisis but has not told anyone, even the therapist, that he is now known to himself privately as Pending Vegan, a new name and identity as a vegetarian hidden inside his old one. His wife he has renamed The Cloud of Unknowing. His profound crisis at the theme park, in which he is unable to tell whether his increasingly unhinged state is caused by the withdrawal or just the world, is by turns moving and hilarious. Anxiety about food is, as the title suggests, the key, and the climax is set up by the purchase of a turkey leg, which he shares with his beautiful twin daughters, resulting in a fugue state:
The drumsticks looked oddly primal — this wasn’t Medieval Times, after all! — but the odor of the seared meat set Pending Vegan to slavering.
See food, eat food.
Sea World, Eat World.
The instant he made the purchase he regretted it. The drumsticks were meat waste, discarded by some factory farm in preference for the breast product. SeaWorld might as well be selling horse hooves or picked cow eyeballs. Still, he walked it back to the stroller, feeling like Fred Flintstone. Under his wife’s incredulous gaze, he tore shreds off the huge cartilaginous drumstick to feed to the girls, like a mother bird to nested fledglings. The crackling greasy skin came off whole and, once removed, was too revolting to do anything with other than discard. The girls washed the meat down with orange juice. Paper napkins stuck and tore on their faces and fingers.
Lethem is at his best when he is the revolutionary, I think — and not the genre-reconciling statesman. When he drills down into the strangeness of contemporary life, the result is as striking as anything else he’s written. It’s a testament to this sort of exercise’s value — and makes you hope Lethem’s not finished playing around. California has many ironies left to offer him.