Prolific writer Jonathan Lethem explores the absurb and the arcane in his new short story collection, Lucky Alan.
Jonathan Lethem's career in writing has garnered him much praise for his ingenuity and his handling of both the novel and short form. More than anything, his new collection, Lucky Alan, is an example of his diversity as a storyteller, or rather of his refusal to adhere to rules and structure. With a Salingerian total of nine stories, the new book charts a rambling journey across surrealism and pop culture, through sharp observations and comic absurdity alike. Its diversity is both its strength and weakness insofar as it shows off much of Lethem's literary scope, yet requires much commitment and elasticity from the reader. The first story, which takes its name from the collection's title, finds the narrator entranced by a famous theater director named Sigismund Blondy, with whom he begins to develop a comfortable camaraderie over bad films and wine bars. Blondy is an elusive figure who radiates a certain New York brand of charm. When he disappears for several months, he returns to regale the narrator with his happenings of late, a tale about Blondy’s former neighbor, Alan Zwelish, who “walked in a fiery aura of loneliness” and enchanted Blondy in much the same way that Blondy himself enchants the narrator.
In the story, Lethem handles placid comedy and seriousness with an existential focus, not unlike the penultimate story, "Pending Vegan", which charts a family’s rather simplistic visit to SeaWorld. This visit, in which Lethem doesn't refrain from poking at the hyper-commercialized hysteria of domestic tourism, is a black-and-white scenario colored in by the father’s existential yearnings and aspiringly vegan insights. Recently weaned off of anti-depressants, the father grapples with the depravity and disconnect around him, and the reader is offered many puzzle pieces to put together in an attempt to unravel the father’s reality from the subconscious unreality of his withdrawal.
Similar in style, "Lucky Alan" and "Pending Vegan" serve as strong anchors for the collection while the stories in-between expound on a heady selection of the bizarre. Stories like "Their Back Pages" and "The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear" leave nothing to connect them to reality; the former introduces a selection of comic book tropes who've crash-landed on an island, while the latter explores a blogger's vengeful mission to bring down a troll. Both sometimes wrestle with indiscernible hyperactivity, though there's plenty to observe beneath the service; ultimately, by sojourning so far to the outskirts of reality, they could tarnish the collection for readers more interested in realism.
That realism is still to be had – bent and twisted into various manifestations – throughout the collection. "King of Sentences" follows a farcically obsessed couple in their attempts to align themselves with their overtly revered favorite writer, a reclusive and cranky sort whom they've dubbed the King of Sentences. Meanwhile in "Traveler Home", a man and his terrier are snowed in when they find themselves the caregivers of a baby delivered by uncanny means. While Lethem departs into a sort of Gothic magical realism for portions of this story, his energetic nature is largely focused on the sparse, disorderly language of the narrative. A gem of the collection is "Procedure in Plain Air", in which a man witnesses the bizarre imprisonment of a presumed criminal in a hole in the streets of Manhattan. Preternaturally compelled, the man takes up a vigil to protect the prisoner despite the unconcerned reactions from everyone else in the city. Beneath the layers of wordplay and visual stimuli in this story, the reader gets the sense that profound observations are being made on the inaction of society against injustices and what this could mean for its future.
The two remaining stories in the collection, "The Porn Critic" and "The Empty Room", handle realism with leanings toward the profane. The former is an account of a young book nerd’s unusual career as a sex shop clerk and reviewer of porn, zeroing in on the imbalance of his muddled romantic life and the salacious reputation afforded him by his job, while "The Empty Room" tells of a family’s obsession with a room quite literally intended to be left empty. In many cases throughout the stories, Lethem's characters remain consistently unremarkable while the crux of his artistry is fed into the underlying observations, the hyper-stylizations, or the explorative narrative voice. There are strengths and weaknesses in each story which will undoubtedly shift with every reader. Ultimately, though, Lucky Alan is a showcase of what makes Lethem so uniquely Lethem.