Book Review Revue
by Jonathan Lethem
(McSweeney's Books) $9
Jonathan Lethem, author, 37 years old, born on the Aquarius-Pisces cusp, has published a book that, the McSweeney's representative assures us, "is among the best things Mr. Lethem has written."
I have read the book. It is quite good. However, I cannot, in good conscience, reveal much about the plot. It would ruin it for you. All I can say is that it involves drinking and people looking for a giant eye.
I will also say this: If you are one of those people who skip to the end to see what happens, don't do it.
The book is short, a mere 55 pages, so you can certainly hold out until the end. As the suspense builds (Will they find the eye? Will the questions be answered?), Lethem does not torture the reader with filler. The questions are answered, though the answers leave the reader to ponder further the types of questions that have plagued mankind for millennia. In other words, it's deep.
In an interview, Lethem agreed that giving away the plot would probably ruin the reader's experience, even though he thinks it's a book that can be enjoyed many times over once the reader is in on the secret. "It's [meant] to be re-read. It's better on second reading rather than first. And this format gives it a chance to have that sort of life."
Those of you who are already familiar with Lethem's books (most famously, Motherless Brooklyn) will understand that the unexpected is to be expected. This book is no different.
Nevertheless, This Shape We're In is unique because of its length. It's too long to be deemed a short story, and yet too short to classify as a novella. As Lethem explained, "The length [of the book] became an opportunity to make it inexpensive and unapologetically short, but there's something about it that has a kind of density. The piece really wants to be a stand-alone item." He added, "It's like a snack item to tide you over to the next book." McSweeney's was able to publish the book in its usual manner, with handsome cover, for a mere $9, a snack-size price.
Lethem has previously published short works in McSweeney's magazine, including "K Is for Fake," which will be included in Kafka Americana, a soon-to-be-published collaborative effort between Lethem and Carter Scholz. Lethem describes the collaboration as "a series of collisions of Kafka with Americana--like Kafka and Batman, and Kafka and Frank Capra." Lethem claims to be a movie buff, so the mix of literature and film is not surprising.
Lethem will not be touring in support of the book. He is focusing on writing and avoiding airports. "Nowadays, authors pontificate and trudge through airports eating Cinnabons," Lethem said. "I'd rather be writing." ASHLEY GAUTHIER
THIS IS NOT A NOVEL
by David Markson
(Counterpoint Press) $14.95
This Is Not a Novel is a novel made up of quotes from and about literature, art, and baseball. It thrives on odd factoids, brief obituary reports, and the writer's comments on what he's doing. Rather than brand it as a sequel targeted to cash in on the unexpected popularity of Markson's previous and similar novel, Reader's Block, I think of both books as complementary parts of the same project. "A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, Writer would like to contrive," appears on verso page two, opposite the recto, "Yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless."
Eschewing the scenery and character development commonly thought to be essential to the art of fiction, Markson lures the reader by dangling allusion-packed trash talk by and about the famous dead shakers and movers of Western civilization. Gossip pops out of the centuries in an order that seems random as it insinuates a deliberate pattern of interconnections. Some glimpses of scenes build on earlier glimpses, so that many of these refugees from history become minor characters who drop in and out of Writer's life and consciousness as Writer comes to terms with his fate.
While Reader's Block aimed the protagonist Reader toward self-annihilation, This Is Not a Novel leads Writer to accept mortality. Using the same technique and following the same morbid preoccupation as the earlier book, the new edition remarkably achieves a different, weirdly upbeat tone.
Conventional fiction fans can't get enough of the same old story, but those who were enchanted by Markson's inventive approach to fiction in Reader's Block might well find the syntactic repetitiveness (A died of x. B died of y,. etc.) to be tedious the second time. Many of Writer's recollections are intriguing ("Leonardo was a bore, according to Renoir") and others are merely banal ("Defoe's father was a butcher"), but some quips need sharpening. We learn that Shakespeare refers to Jesus Christ 11 times in his plays, but zounds! Does that include all references to his wounds?
Nevertheless, Writer's memory and range of interests are fascinating and vast. Writer bravely seems to strike out on his own as he throws himself to the mercy of all he ever knew about everything that ever was. DOUG NUFER