Lack portrays the utmost of coolness. You might even take him for a beatnik. He’s hip man. He’s really hip. He’s on the cover of International science journals, and the Italians dig him. He likes argyle socks, pomegranates and mirrored sunglasses, but skips the bow ties and gourmet food. He wants nothing to do with them, and he most definitely is not into Alice Coombs.
Alice desperately wants to climb through the looking glass, and be Lack’s number one girl, much to the chagrin of Philip Engstrand. He and Alice had a wonderful thing going until Lack came along. Now Philip wails in disbelief as his love chases a science experiment masquerading as an enigma.
Lack, Alice and Philip are the main characters in Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, published in 1997. It’s a science fiction novel that pokes fun at academic faculty, research and campus life. The story takes place at a fictional campus, the University of North California. Alice is a physicist and Philip is a cultural anthropologist studying academic life.
Lack is a void, a nothingness, a black hole created in the physics building. Lack has no personality. It’s an object until faculty members romanticize it, and give it a personality. Could it be Lethem is trying to say personalities are created by the perceptions of those around us, rather than from within?
Alice becomes so absorbed in Lack that everything ceases to exist, including her lover Philip. He refuses to accept this, and attempts numerous means to regain her attention. In return, Alice also wallows in Lack’s rejection of her advances, sending her into total despair. You could say this a story of romantic rejection. Everyone but Lack is depressed over being rejected. It’s a lover’s triangle with one point being an inanimate object incapable of love. Possibly, that is usually the case.
Lethem displays a unique voice in his writing. He evokes emotional responses, and his descriptions assist the reader to visualize the scene. In the following paragraph Alice has been banned from the lab. She haunts the doorway hoping to get a glimpse of her infatuation. She sits on the floor crying. Philip makes another attempt to bond with her.
“I crawled across the margin of floor and held her. I put my arms around her shoulders, my face in her hair. We cried together. Our bodies made one perfect thing, a topological whole, immutable, complete, hollows turned to each other, hollows in alliance. We made a system, a universe. For a moment.”
This exemplifies Lethem’s tight prose with its perfect word selection and composition. As She Climbed Across the Table offers science fiction, romance, humor and excellent writing. The story is a bit on the odd side, but Lethem makes it enjoyable.