Jonathan Lethem – As She Climbed Across the Table

Review From User :

Virtual Reality with a Philosophical Bent

This is a re-read of one of my favourite novels. I've rated it five stars both times, but the rating assumes that you have a philosophical bent. If you don't, it might come across as hopelessly abstract and removed from any reality that you know.

If you do have, it might strike you as a stimulating and amusing work of post-modern fiction.

It's an homage to and pastiche of novels by Lethem's immediate predecessors such as John Barth's "The End of the Road" and Don DeLillo's "White Noise" that deserves to stand proud in their company.

A Universe in a University Lab

Superficially, the novel is a fiction about academia.

The narrator, Philip Engstrand, is a Professor of Anthropology at the fictitious University of North California. His partner is Alice Coombs, a particle physicist who is working with Professor Soft, a Nobel Prize-winner, to create a "baby universe" or a "universe in your backyard" a la the real life theories of Edward Farhi and Alan Guth.

Within this relationship, we also have two distinct cultures: the humanities and science, although perhaps there is a point where cosmology can be seen to cross the boundary between the two, to climb across the table.

Despite the academic and scientific context, the novel is at heart a romantic comedy. Lethem's prose is dry, but heavily ironic and humorous. Early on, Philip says to Alice:

"I feel an initial singularitypressed against your spherical symmetry."

Scientific Detachment

Alice ignores his flippancy, preoccupied with the "false vacuum bubble" that Soft has managed to create.

For Soft has ignited a new inflationary universe in the lab, only it has stalled and failed to "detach" from this universe.

Instead, it has developed a breach or a wound akin to a wormhole that allows communication between the two worlds.

Alice refers to the breach as a portal. It's a rabbit hole that might lead to a wonderland of her own.

Despite the objectivity of her background as a scientist, she can't help but think of it subjectively. She's lost the ability to "observe without consciousness", to "observe without subjective judgement". She falls in love with this thing and becomes "estranged from humanness".

Where and to what the portal leads informs the rest of the novel.

An Explosion of Metaphor

Despite the fact that they have created a baby universe, it has ceased to inflate:

"It has stopped being an 'event'...Now it's defined by its failure to 'happen'. An absence. A lack."

Henceforth, this baby universe is known as "the Lack". It's a breach, a gap, a gulf, a hub, a void. Increasingly estranged from Alice, Philip contemplates:

"The lack was obviously an explosion of metaphor into a literal world. I felt a secret kinship with it."

How We Avoid Each Other

Both Philip and Alice have their own relationship with the Lack.

It's not just a cosmic void. In a way, it comes to represent the distance, the void between two humans.

If we are intimidated by the void, we will never form a relationship with whatever lies on the other side.

In order to form a relationship, we must communicate across the table, into and through the void. We must explore. We must step into the unknown. We must reach out blindly. We must take risks. We must intimate. We must offer soft intimacies. We must reveal vulnerabilities. We must risk harsh judgments and rejection. We must turn our backs on pride to win love's rich rewards. We must overcome and defeat the suspicion and jealousy that can undermine love:

"I pictured Alice guiding blind hands to her breasts. Nipples hard like Braille."

Bizarre Love Triangle

Even once we're "in" a relationship, it can have its own vulnerabilities. As Philip reveals:

"...when I feel distance between us, it's like there's something wrong between me and myself. I feel a gulf in myself."

Hence the kinship with the Lack, even though it is the cause of the distance, the gulf between Philip and Alice (unless in reality we can infer that Alice herself, her "Lack-love" is the subjective cause).

Love as a System, a Universe

Determined not to lose Alice, Philip resolves to "teach her human love again", if and whatever way he can. And so we have the set-up of the novel.

An early attempt proves to be fleeting. I want to mention it, not from a plot point of view, but so as to highlight the tongue-in-cheek earnestness with which Lethem describes the attempt:

"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."

Ironic as the language is, you can see a mock attempt to bridge the gap between the two cultures of science and the humanities.

The Metaphysical Lack

Soft and Alice discover that they can communicate with the Lack. They position a table adjacent the wormhole and slide objects and messages across it. The Lack accepts some things (which disappear) and rejects others (which remain on the table). In a way, it communicates by a binary yes/no system. Eventually, the physicists believe they're able to infer the interests and taste of the Lack.

Philip adopts an almost Kantian approach to the Lack:

"You seem to be saying that Lack is a metaphysical phenomenon. So I should be just as qualified as you to uncover his meaning. If he is, as you say, interested in the idea of things in themselves. Meanings. Texts."

The novel shifts from physics to metaphysics.

One of the physicists proves to be a subjectivist:

"Consciousness creates reality. Only when there is a mind to consider the world is there a world. Nothing before, except potential. Potential this, potential that. The creation event, the big bang - it was the creation of enormous potential, nothing more...[There's no world where there isn't a mentality to consider a worldThere's just a gapa lack.] Consciousness writes realitywherever we look we find reality forming in response...I think there is a principle of conservation of reality. Reality is unwilling to fully exist without an observer. It can't be bothered. Why should it"

You have to ask whether the baby universe stalled so that somebody could look at it. It was waiting for us to catch up and observe it. Alternatively, to the extent that it might be sentient, the Lack might have stopped to observe us and develop its own meaning. And it achieved this through the portal that Alice became.

Sorry, I have to stop now, before my brain explodes. Goo goo ga joob.

Do You Love Me Do We Love One Another

From Alice's point of view, perhaps then the Lack simply represented an Other with which she fell in love, and thus might have caused her to fall out of love with Philip.

However, in a way, she was also what the Lack loved. She was the Lack's Other. She was the source of its meaning. She was the Other's Other. She loved what the Other loved, and the Other loved her. So ultimately, love brings us back to a love of ourselves, an affirmation or validation of self.

We are each our Other's Other. When we love one another, we love ourselves. Conversely, if we don't love ourselves, it's difficult to love one another.

Only when we feel affirmed or validated, can we feel love. Only then can we escape metaphysical fantasy and return to the reality of love.

I Touched Your Hand Across the Table

This is the sort of physical and metaphysical journey that Lethem takes a reader on.

I have to commend both the imaginative scope of the novel and its execution.

In it, Lethem writes with total command of subject matter, language and tone.

This novel is worth climbing across the table for.


Beatles - "I am the Walrus"

New Order - "Bizarre Love Triangle"

Frente! - "Bizarre Love Triangle" [Cover]

The Human League - "Don't You Want Me"

The Human League - "Don't You Want Me" [Live Mime]

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "Do You Love Me"

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "Do You Love Me" [Live in Berlin]

Anna Karenina left her husband for a dashing officer. Lady Chatterley left hers for the gamekeeper. Now Alice Coombs has her boyfriend for nothing … nothing at all. Just how that should have come to pass and what Philip Engstrand, Alice’s spurned boyfriend, can do about it is the premise for this vertiginous speculative romance by the acclaimed author of Gun, with Occasional Music.
Alice Coombs is a particle physicist, and she and her colleagues have created a void, a hole in the universe, that they have taken to calling Lack. But Lack is a nullity with taste – tastes; it absorbs a pomegranate, light bulbs, an argyle sock; it disdains a bow tie, an ice ax, and a scrambled duck egg. To Alice, this selectivity translates as an irresistible personality. To Philip, it makes Lack an unbeatable rival, for how can he win Alice back from something that has no flaws – because it has no qualities? Ingenious, hilarious, and genuinely mind-expanding, As She Climbed Across the Table is the best boy-meets-girl-meets-void story ever written.

As She Climbed Across the Table 3 of 5

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