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As She Climbed Across the Table

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Jonathan Lethem’s slim volume, As She Climbed Across the Table, examines the relationship between Alice Coombs, a physicist at Berkeley university, and Philip Engstrang, an anthropologist who specialises in observing the rites and rituals of fellow academics. Their future is placed in doubt when an experiment to create a Farhi-Guth Universe succeeds, and a false vacuum bubble is created.

Over time the bubble is named Lack, and he is discovered to have developed tastes. Some items that pass through Lack disappear, while others are rejected. Lack is absolute in his rejections: once an object is rejected, it will never be accepted. Alice becomes increasingly obsessive in her study of Lack, to the point where she leaves Philip and tells him that she is in love with Lack. She offers herself to Lack, but is rejected. She continues in her pursuit to understand Lack, while Philip doggedly attempts to win Alice back from her intellectual and perfect love affair with an abstraction.

The premise of this book is strange, and yet alluring in its own way. Lethem’s style of writing is gorgeous and evocative, and suits the short nature of his novel. If he were to write more I think it would become tiresome.

Since the story revolves around the academic world of ideas and theories, the book itself operates on many levels: from the basic examination of a relationship in crisis, to the surreal humour of a woman falling in love with a wormhole, to the obvious metaphorical readings of the story about a woman called Alice who falls through a hole that will not accept her.

Yet, I found myself strangely uninterested in the story as it unfolded. There is an objective distance discernible in the story that reflects the academic’s perspective when studying a subject. The same distance that, ironically, Alice is unable to achieve in her examination of Lack. What carried me was Lethem’s writing, and the absurd nature of the story itself. The denouement of the novel is fulfilling, in the same charming and intangible way the story unfolds.

At its core As She Climbed Across the Table is about a fancy, a nonsense, and this conceit permeates the story so at the end the reader is left feeling as if she has eaten, but not gained any calories.

It’s terrific if you’re on a diet.

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About Maura McHugh