Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 2015; 176 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
Jonathan Lethem's newest collection, Lucky Alan: And Other Stories, is made up of nine sharp, socially conscious stories seemingly linked by the isolated persons stuck negotiating their lives by way of location: a theater, coffee houses, a porn shop, Brooklyn, SeaWorld. I first discovered Lethem's writing after reading his story, “Light and the Sufferer,” in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology where the editors, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, present a variety of stories from writers such as Aimee Bender, Jeff VanderMeer, and Karen Joy Fowler to work through the genre, or idea, of “slipstream,” possibly defined as a chunk of the spectrum between science fiction and literature, surrealism and reality. Many of the stories in Lucky Alan, particularly “The King of Sentences,” “The Porn Critic,” “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear,” and “Pending Vegan,” read as fantastic studies on slipstream in that Lethem crafted the perfect dose of strangeness for these stories, showing us a fresh, dreamlike take on what it could mean to be a person.
For instance, in “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” Lethem redefines a blog as some kind of physical entity with an “entranceway” where a person (possibly) can be/was killed (124), but also not a physical space and existing only because of its inhabitants: “My blog is a site on no map, is sanctioned in no precinct, patrolled by no militia. Its occupants have only ever constituted its sole authority. The three of us, if it ever was three. Or two. Now gone” (125). The physical/electronic binary is further complicated after the blog is defaced: “someone had set ablaze the guest book, as well as the burnished ebony Bible stand on which the guest book had stood” (130). And, through a collage of first person narratives, messages, and posts, Lethem pushes us deeper as the narrator's persona fluctuates via obsessive and emotionally-charged remarks about the supposed users and the blog until, finally, creating a new blog, “a blog at the ocean's edge, a blog-by-the-sea,” in somewhat triumph, leaving us to rethink what is home as well as the overlaps between our real and electronic identities (134).
In another story, “The King of Sentences,” Lethem's main characters, a pair of book store employees and writers, demonstrate the absurdities that are sometimes aligned with obsession and fanaticism as they force themselves on their favorite, yet reclusive, writer. Or, in “Pending Vegan,” a detoxing father must reconcile the hypocrisies related to how we treat animals during a family vacation to SeaWorld. In both stories, and many others in the collection, Lethem asks us to question what we think we know as he draws connections between the ways we isolate ourselves, how place isolates us, and the ways our insular worlds might dictate our perception. For instance, in “The Porn Critic,” Kromer has, as a result of his job as an adult store clerk and porn reviewer, literally insulated his apartment with porn to the point where his “apartment was a maze of stacked porn,” but he doesn't think twice about having guests over to smoke pot (96). Lucky Alan brings something new to the table while also expanding on Lethem's unique universe. In each of these nine stories, Lethem tours us through a world slightly askew so that by the end of Lucky Alan we might question what's considered normal, and have a keener eye for the strange that's hidden in the mundane.