Jonathan Lethem – The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye
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.