Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

So, still no big decisions on a project. I’m going to take the weekend to think about it, try some books and see what suits me. Thank you everyone for the wonderful suggestions, I feel so lucky to have such thoughtful readers to discuss these things with. It feels very strange to be floundering in this way with my reading – I suspect it is a combination of things going on in my everyday life and not taking the right amount of time to focus. I’m not reading as much as I would like to these days, but I’m not worried. The right book will come along and everything will fall into place.

So without further ado – some thoughts on one of my recent reads…

My first experience with Jonathan Lethem was through his novel Motherless Brooklyn, a book that has remained one of my favorites. Lethem is an interesting writer because he started out writing mainly science fiction and has since broadened his project into a versatile and fascinating mix of several genres with what I can only consider a traditional literary style. In Motherless Brooklyn, Lethem called upon noir fiction techniques and mystery writing to tell the story of an orphaned young man with Tourrette’s syndrome who tries to understand how his mentor and “father” figure was killed. It is both funny and touching and complicated and really well written.

So when I saw his short story collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye in a used book shop in the states over my January holiday, I picked it right up.  These stories have a very different feel than Motherless Brooklyn – mostly because instead of mystery, they dip heavily into science fiction. And they are all quite dark.

Now I don’t mind dark at all, but I don’t usually have a lot of interest in science fiction. However, Lethem does a great job of blending the sci-fi elements into a more “literary” story. (I really hate to make this distinction, because I think what matters is whether a story or a novel is a pleasure to read, but for the purposes of looking at Lethem, I think it’s interesting to call attention to the way he blends these styles so successfully.) I think the story that does this best is Light and the Sufferer, which is at heart a simple story of brotherly love. But it involves an alien – called the Sufferer – who lurks through every scene and functions as a trigger for the story’s more difficult questions. I also love that Lethem does not ever answer the questions he raises about the Sufferer’s purpose or behavior. The focus remains on the narrator and his grief and anger. Extremely well done.

The other stories are extremely varied: there is an ingenious version of Hell (this story actually gave me nightmares), a futuristic landscape where people are divided into those that live in their cars on the interstates and those that live in a “real” city, a bizarre parable about the dangers of co-dependence (the least successful story in the collection, in my opinion) and a story about a bunch of “sleepy people”, militias and roving bands of thugs called dinosaurs. All very bizarre and extremely creative. All of them, however, more concerned with more fundamental questions like suppressed trauma, loneliness, and heartache. The science fiction elements work as scaffolding while the stories keep their focus on human (easily identifiable) narratives.

12 Responses to “Jonathan Lethem – The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye”

  1. Stefanie

    I’ve not read Lethem yet but he is on my list. My husband read As She Crawled Across the Table and loved it. This sounds like an interesting book of short stories with a lot of variety. I like the title of the collection. Is there a story with that title in it?

  2. Litlove

    I have never even heard of Jonathon Lethem, but your post makes him sound very intriguing. I said I’d read a little more literary sci-fi this year, so I will bear him in mind, although I need to start with a novel.

  3. Logophile

    I read my first Lethem in the last Granta, writing about his father. I hadn’t even heard of him before that. This short story collection sounds fascinating. A story that gave you a nightmare – that must be vivid writing!

  4. Steph

    I had no idea that Lethem had a sci-fi background! That’s actually really interesting to know (and I wonder if I can use that info to encourage my boyfriend to give him a shot). I actually have Motherless Brooklyn in my TBR pile, and hope to eventually get around to it! 😉

    And I understand about the vagaries about the distinctions between sci-fi and literary fiction. I think it’s always hard to categorize genre fiction accurately – as if literary fiction itself cannot span a gamut of topics and content!

  5. Dorothy W.

    I listened to The Fortress of Solitude a while back and didn’t fall in love with it, but I might like his earlier work better — I might possibly try Motherless Brooklyn some day. I’m glad to hear you’ve enjoyed his stories!

  6. Eric

    I am new here.

    You should read through more of the Classics of Ancient Greece! It’s good stuff, and I see you have a very strong grounding in contemporary literatures already. Plus I see you’ve read some of the major titles, why not read the rest?

  7. ds

    Count me among the several who had no idea Lethem began as a sci-fi writer. Also count me among those who are adding him to their list. You make him sound too interesting to ignore.

  8. verbivore

    Stefanie – Strangely enough, there isn’t a title story. I’d love to know what you think if you get a chance to try Lethem, he has such an unusual blend of genre and literary style. Very easy to read, I might add, but with difficult themes all the same.

    Litlove – I’d definitely recommend Motherless Brooklyn, it isn’t Sci-Fi but still genre bending and just a really good read in general.

    Logophile – Vivid is the right word for it. That first story will stick with me for quite some time. Creepy! But also really inventive and interesting.

    Steph – Can’t wait to hear what you think of Motherless Brooklyn, I can highly recommend it. A great read, quick but really full of detail and great scenes.

    Dorothy – I’ve been wanting to try Fortress of Solitude, and have heard mixed reviews. Still, I like his style so maybe I’ll enjoy it. I’d be curious to see if you like Motherless Brooklyn better.

    Gentle Reader – Doesn’t it project sound interesting? I was reading about it the other day when I started writing my thoughts on the story collection. He’s a very engaged writer, which I heartily applaud. And his creativity is quite broad.

    Jacob – I’ve started it – can’t wait to get through the book. I love how she writes!

    Eric – Thanks for stopping by. I’m slowly but surely working through those classics, and really enjoying them. I think I would have a hard time throwing aside all contemporary writing and focusing exclusively on the Greeks but it’s a compelling idea!

    DS – I’d love to know what you think if you get a chance to try some of his stuff. I’ve got several more added to the to-be-read pile at the moment, hopefully will get to them this year.

  9. chartroose

    I like Lethem too–my favorite is “The Fortress of Solitude.”

    So, you still haven’t decided, huh? It’s hard, isn’t it? One of my Goodreads buddies is busy reading WWII fiction right now. Will that work?

    • verbivore

      It is hard – I feel a bit wishy washy about not having decided on a firm project. At the same time, I am reading again so that’s already good news!

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