A father tries to stave off a nervous breakdown when a family trip to SeaWorld shades into the sinister; a porn critic discovers that, despite his best intentions, his reputation—not to mention the stacks of smut lining his apartment—precedes him; an out-of-work avant-garde stage director begins to test his limits in the theater of life; desperate forgotten comic book characters find themselves suddenly stranded on a desert island.
With his celebrated wit and invention, Lethem brilliantly transforms the real into the surreal, uncovering the absurdity always lurking in the mundane, the twin forces of humor and tragedy that bracket experience, and the lasting desire—even in the face of all that goes awry—for human connection.
About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:Left Bennington College after two years
Read an Excerpt
In the months after I’d auditioned for him, I would run into the legendary theater director Sigismund Blondy at the movies, near-empty Thursday matinees of indifferent first-run films--North Country, Wedding Crashers--in the decaying venues of the Upper East Side, where we both lived: the Crown, the Clearview, the Gemini; big rooms chopped into asymmetric halves or quartered through the balcony. Blondy saw a movie every afternoon, he said, and could provide scrupulous evaluations of any title you’d ever think to mention--largely dismissals, though I do recall his solemn approval of A Sound of Thunder, a time-travel film with a Ben Kingsley performance he’d liked. I’d see Blondy when the lights came up--alone, red scarf and pale elegant coat unfurled on the seat beside him, long legs crossed--unashamed, already hailing me if he spotted me first. Blondy dressed in dun and pastel colors, wore corduroys or a dancer’s Indian pants; in winter he had holes in his knitted gloves, in summer a cheesy Panama hat. He towered, moved softly and suddenly, usually vanished at any risk of being introduced. Soon I’d scan for Blondy whenever I entered a theater, alone or not. Often enough I’d find him. We never sat together.
If this multiplex-haunting practice didn’t square with Blondy’s reputation as the venerated maestro of a certain form of miniaturist spectacle (Krapp’s Last Tape in the elevator of a prewar office building, which moved up and down throughout the performance, with Blondy himself as Krapp, for cramped audiences of five or six at a time), it didn’t matter, since that reputation hardly thrived. I’d auditioned--talked with him, really--for a role in a repertory production of several of Kenneth Koch’s One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays. Dianne Wiest sat with us in the back room of the SoHo Italian restaurant in which the Koch cycle was to be staged, and where this evaluative tete-a-tete took place. She followed our conversation soberly, her unexplained presence typical of Blondy’s Zelig-like infiltration of the city’s culture. Within weeks I’d learned that Blondy’d had a falling-out with the restaurant’s proprietor, stranding the enterprise. I’d waited, expecting some revival of the project, for months. Eventually I assumed I’d been replaced and kept half an eye on the Times for a notice of the thing. But the Koch never surfaced, nor did anything else. Maybe Blondy’s run was over. Or on hiatus in some deep ruminative lag. And then, in the months that followed, he gradually became my moviegoing doppelganger.
The ritual was made official the first time he invited me out for a glass of red after the movie, as though that were the real point of the afternoon. We’d sit at some Madison or Second Avenue wine bar in the dimming hours, invariably alongside those waiting for their dinner dates, those who made even me feel old. Whether Blondy ever felt old I couldn’t guess. His grandiosity, his U-turn anecdotes, his contempt for the obvious statement didn’t invite such guesses, only the tribute of gratified awe. I gave it. Blondy was like a skater up his own river, a frozen ribbon the rest of us might have glimpsed through trees, from within a rink where we circled to tinny music. The first time we left a movie theater together, before even finishing a glass, I told him I had quit acting. Blondy’s intimate smile seemed to say, not unsympathetically, that it was all for the best. We rarely talked about the film we’d just seen; instead we discussed great works--the Rothko retrospective, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, whatever formed his present obsession. After two or three glasses on an empty belly had made me dizzy--Blondy never showed any effects--we’d part on the sidewalk.
By the time it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Sigismund Blondy in a while, I couldn’t have said how long a while was. Four months? Eight? It seemed to me he’d been in holey-gloves-and-red-scarf mode the last time we’d slipped from a theater to a bar, but that didn’t narrow it down much. We were headed back to scarf weather now. Maybe Blondy had summered somewhere--Provincetown?--and decided not to return, enlisting some local company to mount spectacles in a dockworkers bar or a bowling alley’s lounge. Sig Blondy, big fish in a small pond? I knew no more consummate New Yorker, so I started to worry.
Neither of the two people whom Blondy and I knew in common had any reason to know that the director and I spent afternoons together, but when I called--the first didn’t have Blondy’s phone number, and the second had one that he thought was the “old number,” then found another he recommended I try--neither was interested enough to ask why I wanted to track him down. Perhaps these days Blondy was less well remembered than I’d assumed. Blondy, likely in his early sixties, always seemed to me terrifyingly vital, but those in their early sixties might suddenly fail. Had I entered, without noticing, some quiet bargain struck among the proud bachelors of Manhattan to get one another’s backs? In my rapidly evolving fantasy, Blondy became pitiable, myself a rescuer. I rang the number. Blondy’s machine was set to pick up on the first ring. It figured he’d be an old-school screener.
“Grahame,” he said, interrupting my message. His tone was munificent, as if congratulating me for having the name I did.
I’d been reaching for words to distill my concern but now scrambled, defensively, for a joke. His relish at having lifted the receiver in the thick of my fumbling seemed akin to his pleasure at our old, ambiguous encounters in theater lobbies, before we’d begun drinking. What I said now was “Don’t you go to the flicks anymore, or are you ashamed to take the senior discount?”
“Oh, I go. Every afternoon. Just not in the old neigh-bore-hood.”
“I miss you,” I blurted.
He explained that he’d moved downtown, to Minetta Street. Hiding in plain sight, he called it. He’d spoken in the past of his devotion to the block of Seventy-eighth Street, where for decades he’d held down a rent-stabilized bargain, and of his persistent enchantment with the tribes of dog-walkers and nannies he’d mingled with there, once calling the Upper East Side “the last of the true Manhattan.” But I didn’t get a chance to ask him why he’d abandoned it. “I’ve got some questions I want to ask you,” he said. “When can you get here?”
“Better than questions, a questionnaire. You’ll see.”
“You want me to come to Minetta Street? Today?”
“Look, Film Forum is doing Mizoguchi--Ugetsu. Ever seen it?” There was something of the director in his bullying and beguiling, but it was in my nature, I suppose, to be directed.
Ugetsu astonished me. Discussing it after the two-fifteen matinee, while we looked on Sixth Avenue for a restaurant with a suitable bar, Blondy said that for years he’d felt that two scenes toward the end of the film were reversed from their ideal order--the only flaw, he’d always thought, in a perfect work of art--but that today, sitting at Film Forum, waiting for it, he couldn’t spot the flaw he’d earlier been so certain of. “What’s pathetic is that I’d presumed to go around all these years sure I knew better than Mizoguchi! It’s as though I had to defend myself against the film’s perfection.” I was awed, as I maybe was supposed to be, at the scrupulousness with which he dwelled on what he cared for. Perhaps I was also awed at the change in our friendship. We’d gone to a movie that Blondy cared about, instead of trash, and for once we’d sat together in the theater, so I could smell Blondy’s faint but unmistakable doggish odor. It felt as though I’d stepped into Blondy’s script, was now simultaneously the featured performer and the sole audience for the most infinitesimal of his productions.
When we’d settled down with two glasses of Syrah, Blondy drew from his pocket several worn photocopies. “Okay, these are the questions I’ve been wanting to ask you,” he said, as if he’d been expecting my call in the first place.
“They’re from Max Frisch’s Sketchbook 1966–1971. Ready?”
“We won’t do the whole questionnaire. I’ll pick and choose.”
“Are you sure you are really interested in the preservation of the human race once you and all the people you know are no longer alive?”
“That’s the first question.” He resumed his insinuating theatrical murmur. “Are you sure you are really interested . . .”
I did my best with the question, told Blondy I thought anyone ought to feel a value in the continuity of the species, but he interrupted. “No, you,” he said. “How do you feel?”
“Yes, I’d be sad if there were no people.”
He leaped to the next question. “Whom would you rather never have met?”
My only brush with Harold Pinter had been fiercely disappointing. I began to describe it. Blondy rushed me again.
“Would you like to have perfect memory? Just answer the questions that interest you, Grahame. If you had the power to put into effect things you consider right, would you do so against the wishes of the majority?”
“Look, Sigismund, what is this?”
“Are you convinced by your own self-criticism?”
“Too much, I’m afraid.”
“Are you conscious of being in the wrong in relation to some other person (who need not necessarily be aware of it)? If so, does this make you hate yourself--or the other person?”
His voice was so entrancing that I suspected we were both entranced. He might as well have asked to read me poetry, for all that I was persuaded he wanted my replies. I said, “What about you, Sig? You answer this one.”
He nodded, raised his glass. “And hate myself for it.”
Again, I wondered if I heard the sound of a trap snapping shut. Had I delivered my designated line? Were we perhaps getting to the point?
“Who?” I asked.
“Alan Zwelish,” Blondy said.
Sigismund Blondy had known Alan Zwelish for several years, in the way of a Manhattan neighbor, repeatedly sighting a compelling face in passing instants as one or the other swerved from the street into the entrances of their buildings, which stood across and askew from each other, or in the same Chase ATM lobby on Seventy-ninth, or in the late-night Korean shop collecting, if you were Zwelish, a pack of cigarettes, or, if you were Blondy, a bottle of ginger beer or a packet of wasabi peanuts. Or, most stirringly, far from the block they shared, at adjacent bookstalls in Union Square on a hot Saturday noon, where they honored the strangeness of detecting each other so far afield with a curt nod. That nod could have been the whole of it. But Blondy didn’t play by the Manhattan-neighbor rules. He was provocative, voluble, grabby. He collected life histories, he’d once bragged to me, of the block’s fleet of dog-walkers, maypoled in leashes on their way to the park, confused to be approached when nearly anyone else would switch pavements to get a berth from roiling terriers. Cooed at strollered babies until lonely Tibetan nannies, the invisible persons of Manhattan, practically swooned in his long arms. Blondy regaled waiters, too; I’d seen him do it.
Anyway, Alan Zwelish, short, muscled, his eyes sparkling with suspicion, sports coats pixied with dandruff, became a fascination. Bearded when Blondy first noticed him, Zwelish shaved within a year or so, revealing features younger and grimmer than Blondy had guessed, a knuckly chin and somewhat sensuous lips. Tenured-professorial in the pretentious facial hair, without it Zwelish was revealed to be no more than thirty-five. His Bogart smoking mannerisms seemed the result of mirror study and, like the renounced beard, an attempt to gain control of the lower portion of his face. Blondy watched this proud, drum-tight personality fidget past him on the street and began projecting; he couldn’t help it: an unfinished degree in journalism, concerned married sisters in New Jersey or Connecticut (but probably New Jersey), weights but no cardio, aggrieved blind dates, Cigar Aficionado and Stereophile, takeout menus, acres of porn. What was positive was this: Zwelish owned his apartment, the basement of a co-oped town house, and made a living consulting on business software--these facts Blondy got out of Alan Zwelish, semi-voluntarily, the first time he introduced himself, on Seventy-eighth Street.
The next time they passed, Zwelish attempted to look the other way, as though offering up this information had been a paying of dues, and he could now revert to nodding acquaintance. No dice, not with Blondy, who launched one of his in-medias-res gambits (the equivalent, maybe, of a Max Frisch questionnaire): The parrots were missing, had Zwelish heard? What? Zwelish hadn’t ever seen the flock of green parrots, rumored to be pets escaped over the years, which congregated in certain trees on York Avenue at Seventy-seventh, around which you could hear a tropical cloud of parrot conversation? These birds were a totem of the neighborhood; it was essential Zwelish see them. But Blondy hadn’t managed to spot them for more than a week. Was Zwelish doing anything urgent at the moment, or would he join Blondy for a walk to search them out? Incredibly--or not, given Blondy’s charismatic sway--Zwelish excused himself for a moment to put his briefcase inside and take a leak, then rejoined Blondy, and they strolled together to York. It was a perfect afternoon, a temperate wind rebounding off the river. They found the parrots easily. (Whether they’d ever been missing at all Zwelish was left to wonder.)
Now the hard little man had been cracked open. As Sigismund Blondy saw him, Zwelish walked in a fiery aura of loneliness, but Blondy had gotten inside the penumbra. Zwelish would grab Blondy on the street and describe family plights: the barely tolerated Passover at his--yes!--sister’s in New Jersey, the difficulty of properly liquidating his father’s gnarled-up assets, which were under his elderly mom’s watch. And brag, essentially. Was Blondy drinking the crap water that came out of the Seventy-eighth Street taps? He should install such-and-such purification system in his sink. Cash sitting in a money-market account was as good as thrown away; Zwelish was in certain arcane tech stocks and had also acquired a Motherwell print. Blondy was invited to an East Hampton guesthouse weekend? That place was hell, trust Zwelish. Zwelish’s high-school buddy had a place in the Berkshires, a better value. Blondy rented? Hopeless! Everything was a competition in which Blondy wouldn’t compete, saying, “Look at who you’re talking to, Alan. I’m like the parrots, just roosting here, decorating the area. I’d rather leave nothing behind but delicious memories.” Bohemian standards Zwelish wouldn’t ratify. “You’re a fool,” he’d say. “Yes,” Blondy agreed, “I’m a fool, exactly.” Zwelish narrowed his eyes. “But you don’t know how dangerous it is to be a fool. Dangerous to yourself and others.” Blondy thought, What others?