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Lucky Alan: and Other Stories (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – February 23, 2016
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“Rich and darkly comic. . . . Astutely cunning social and political satires sit alongside experimental flights of absurdist fantasy and parable, with traces of Lethem’s unique slant on magical realism sprinkled in as well. Comparisons might be drawn to writers ranging from Jorge Luis Borges and Haruki Murakami to Margaret Atwood and J. D. Salinger. All of Lethem’s stories are enlivened by his wit and provocative wordplay.” —Chicago Tribune
“Lethem works in an interesting literary space between realism and absurdism, modernism and postmodernism, satire and a particular brand of [Don] DeLillo-inspired darkness. . . . His talent is large.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Jonathan Lethem at his bizarre best.” —Los Angeles Times
“Lethem’s words execute graceful turns and explosive leaps to whatever tempo he sets. . . . Rewards await the reader who commits to this slim volume. . . . Lucky Alan is a beguiling addition to a shelf full of uniquely inventive books by a master of genres.” —The Miami Herald
“A great introduction to the sometimes heartbreaking, often surreal world of Jonathan Lethem. . . . A testament to the writer’s refusal to play by the rules.” —NPR Books
“Nearly every sentence captures Lethem’s sharp wit and copious imagination.” —Publishers Weekly
“Reality-bending fables from the master. . . . Weird, charming, playful, Lucky Alan is great fun.” —The Guardian (London)
“Taut, darkly funny. . . . [Lucky Alan] excels at creating these moments of absurdity that exist not merely for their own sake, but on some level to expose our own tendency to accept the unacceptable, to live hypocritically, and to assuage our guilt with comforting words and superficialities rather than meaningful action.” —The Huffington Post
“A wild ride across the boundaries of language, artifice and genre. . . . This is the joy of reading Jonathan Lethem: you never know what you’re going to get. . . . You might guess that Alan’s luck runs out, but you’ll never guess quite how: Lethem is always one step ahead.” —Financial Times (London)
About the Author
Jonathan Lethem is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Dissident Gardens, Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, and of the essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lethem’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, among other publications.
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Two conventional stories are the least interesting in the collection. "Lucky Alan" is about the growth and decline of a New York friendship and its impact on a director's ability to stage manage his life. An empty room in his parents' house is the focal point of "The Empty Room" as a young man returns home with his girlfriend for a visit. While both stories are weaker than others in the collection, the characters are sharply drawn.
"Procedure in Plain Air" is a story only Lethem could write -- other than, maybe, Franz Kafka. Workers dig a hole, drop a bound man into it, cover the hole loosely with boards, and give an umbrella to the narrator with instructions to keep the man in the hole dry if it rains. This wonderfully absurd story suggests that people behave ridiculously because "someone has to step up" and, in stepping up, feel compelled to defend the indefensible.
"The King of Sentences" is an ode to books and the "astonishingly unprecedented and charming sentences" they contain. Lethem write plenty of those, including "I saw him the other day in the pharmacy, buying one of those inflatable doughnuts for sitting on when you've got anal discomfort."
Two stories in particular made me smile. The narrator of "Pending Vegan" is "pending" because he fears his children will accuse him of "childlike moral absolutism" if he commits. That's part of the biting humor in this very funny story about a man bewildered by life and the dog he once abandoned. "The Porn Critic" is about a porn shop clerk whose apartment is cluttered with the movies he reviews for the shop's newsletter. The story's humor comes from the reaction that women have to his living environment and reputation, "his life a site where others came to test their readiness for what they feared were their disallowed yearnings."
The narrator of "The Salivating Ear" killed a man at the entrance to his blog. The story suggests that bloggers will take extreme measures to protect their blog and its one or two readers from haters. It is a charming look at lonely bloggers who dream of the day when busloads of tourists will visit their blogs.
Two other stories didn't quite work for me. "Traveler Home" is written as an internal monologue (despite its third person voice) in an abbreviated style, stripped of definite articles and other nonessential words. The story, of wolves that deliver a baby in a basket, is interesting although I'm not quite sure that I caught the point of it. Similarly, I don't know what to make of "The Back Pages," a tale of characters "who live on the margins of cartoon lore." Their plane has crashed on an island, stranding them. The story is told in panels, journal entries, notes to the artist, silly songs and poems, and traditional narrative. It's sort of Lost meets Lord of the Flies meets Pogo and Prince Valiant. I like the concept but I think it works better as a concept than it does as an actual story.
Another first-person story, "The Empty Room," in which a young man looks back on the strangeness and downward spiral of his parents (father especially) also is evocative of a life and a time and a place. It carries a whiff of unrealism, with the man's girlfriend a little more frank about sex, drugs and nudity than you'd find in all but the most outlandish person. But it's solid.
I really liked the one about a young man who's mistaken by his nerdy friends as the wild one, and how that goes awry. And the one about a father taking his kids to Sea World is memorable in its way, too; unlike many of the stories, it ends on a hopeful note.
A couple of stories are quite experimental. One has non-human characters who are speaking non-human words, but are living among humans. Because it's done in dispatches kind of like a diary, it works reasonably well because different people and non-people interact. Another story is all fragments and glimpses. There probably aren't a half-dozen sentences in that one that are more than four words.
The writing is elegant in these stories, and it changes with characters and from one story to another. There's humor, both regular and dark. And there are interesting, humorous observations, such as the father's feeling on the trip to Sea World that moving through the park is like being eaten, digested and excreted by a large sea animal. Same with the way the narrator of the first story describes how people treat each other in New York: seeing each other and making a nodding gesture of familiarity, but only rarely getting to know each other, and then when they do get to know each other being the subject of gossip.
Overall, a good quick read, but with more than enough to make you read slowly and think.