As She Climbed across the Table Hardcover – 17 Feb 1997
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Deeply in love with physicist Alice Coombs, professor Philip Engstrand becomes involved in Alice's research into the creation of "Lack," a conscious void in the universe that swallows up things it fancies.
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love with Alice. As the novel opens, he is beginning to lose her. Not to another man, as he fears, but to, literally, nothing. Alice is a physicist, and a team at the University where both she and Philip work has created a hole, a vacuum, a doorway of nothingness inside the laboratory. They call it "Lack." Alice becomes obsessed with Lack, as Philip is obsessed by Alice.<br><br>The novel is at the same time an astute and wise portrait of unrequited love (albeit of a very unusual kind) a hilarious academic parody, a novel of ideas and a social satire. It is utterly original, but in the school of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Katherine Dunn, and David Foster Wallace.<br><br>Passion, humor, yearning and knowledge, blended together in a suspenseful love story that could be characterized as "American Magical Realism."
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Alice Coombs, (as in "Alice in Wonderland" one suspects), is a particle physicist engaged in an attempt to create a black hole in the lab. She succeeds, and "Void" is born. As she becomes more and more obsessed with Void she becomes more and more distant from her lover, Phillip. So we end up with the final Kafkaesque love triangle - Alice, Phillip and the ultimate nothing. Void, apparently a doorway to somewhere else, accepts some objects that are dropped into it but ignores other objects, which just pass through Void. It does not accept Alice and this is driving her mad with unrequited desire, (the desire to know? the desire to be wanted? the desire to meet Void's standards?)
The upshot is that we get narrator Phillip's thoughts about being dumped in favor of nothing, and we follow Alice's attempts to become attractive to nothing. In a brilliantly conceived twist a character explores this rabbit hole, and we find ourselves in a fascinating alternate universe that most surely must be an homage to the single greatest episode of "The Twilight Zone", (the "dimensional hole" in "Little Girl Lost" from 1962).
Lethem's books are smart, playful and edgy. Some can be rather dense, but this one is spare and fast paced, which I guess fits a story that is one extended metaphor. Lethem occasionally indulges in mockery or needling, but he's generally good humored enough to avoid the pretension and condescension that you can encounter with some of his contemporaries. That makes books like this more fun instead of a chore. So I'm all for it.
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You can get the main outlines of the plot from any of these other reviews, but I find myself drawn to think about Lethem's influences and references. As with Motherless Brooklyn, I found rather strong affinities to some of the work of Oliver Sacks here, particularly in the characters of the two blind men.
An obvious refence is in the name of Alice's character. Is the hole that has been opened a door, a mirror, a dream or wish, or maybe a nightmare?
I would also assume that the protagonist, Philip, is named for the late Mr Dick who was always trying to make sense of the concept of reality and explore some of the holes in the ways we think about it. I'd be curious to see what other references and influences others have picked up.