I woke this morning from a memory in which I found myself demanding a whole smoked-fish plate, with plenty of bagels, sturgeon and chopped liver too, in exchange for having sex with an acquaintance after a demoralizing threesome. The demand of fish for sex didn't sound like me. Also, I don't eat liver. So it didn't seem like autobiography. Though I do sometimes dream of fish and sex, and the scene had the absurdist logic of a dream, that explanation didn't feel right either.
Oh! I finally realized, with no small amount of relief: That scene's not mine. It's from a Jonathan Lethem story, "The Porn Critic," from "Lucky Alan and Other Stories," the third short-story collection in a career of exciting and innovative books. Or, I should say, the scene is mine. Either I claimed it or it claimed me. But at least the I is not mine, not fully. This kind of confusion doesn't happen to me often.
While some of his contemporaries confuse or directly assault the line that separates the non from fiction, Lethem sees no need for such tactics. He knows that if you make a story forceful, beautiful and odd, it will stay with us regardless; it can come to mean as much to us as the stories we tell ourselves about our lives in memory. Isn't that what art is good for: living without living? And Lethem's art makes for some weird, fine living.
"Lucky Alan" consists of nine stories, all of which have been previously published, and five of which first appeared in the New Yorker. Roughly, the book is split between two sorts of stories. Four are realistic, usually told in the third person. They seem straightforward but wear their weirdness lightly, often spiraling out into bizarre emotional territory by the time we've reached their end.
Take for instance the title story, which concerns a man's obsessive fixation on an elusive theater director (and the director's obsessive fixation on a neighbor (Lethem's stories tend to get layered quickly and need at least a couple of levels of nested parentheses to be adequately described)). This kind of Lethem story is typically odd, funny and easy to love. Its prose usually doesn't draw too much attention to itself at first, and offers up its spectacles on the sly: "As Sigismund Blondy saw him, Zwelish walked in a fiery aura of loneliness, but Blondy had gotten inside the penumbra."
Then there's the weirder half. This other kind of story flies its freak flag much more prominently and takes more effort to engage with on account of its stylized prose. "Their Back Pages" offers us a fragmented and demented look into the back stories of various characters marooned on a remote island in a comic book. This includes a monster named C'Krrrarn whose narration alternates between all caps descriptions of C'Krrrarn FEEDING on chunks of whatever ("A PALM TREE," "THE VOLCANO," "THE OCEAN," "THE HORIZON") and his lowercase aspirations toward a Zen-like state ("C'Krrrarn sits perfectly still and tries to empty his mind").
These stories are often first-person and are always interested in voice. Like "The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear," a story about a blogger killing a troll who sullied the fiefdom of her blog, they do not have any special affection for realism.
This mix results in a pleasing schizophrenia and a remarkable variety in affect and ambition within one collection. Still, I found myself wondering: Which is the center of the book, and which the deviation?
Neither. Or they're both deviations. The transition between the second and third stories in "Lucky Alan" is telling. In any collection worth our admiration, the end and shape of one story should cast its shadow over the next, and so on, until they all concatenate and form a greater shape by book's end. "The King of Sentences," one of those third-person stories, follows a couple obsessed with an unnamed writer to whom they refer as the King of Sentences as they track him down and end up in a situation that I won't spoil for you. In the last two lines of the story we find our couple "understanding, abruptly and at last, just what it takes to be King. How much, in the end, it actually costs."
From there we move into "Traveler Home," one of the hyper-stylized stories, that follows an unnamed Traveler as he saves a baby found in the woods from wolves and is confronted by seven creepy daughters. It begins: "Traveler waking. Journey begins," and the prose continues on in the mode of these fragments, these clipped near-sentences. Its emphasis on voice courts our reading of it as a virtuoso piece, an exercise in style, perhaps the sort that the King of Sentences might even try to pull off.
The advance copy of the book I read fails to switch the running headers at the story's end, so that when "Traveler Home" begins it is still presided over by the title "The King of Sentences." Though Lethem didn't go so far as to title the collection "The King of Sentences," I couldn't shake the idea that both these sorts of stories — and the variety of sentences he deploys — are somehow all the Works of the King, and this collection is his kingdom, the kingdom of the sentence, in its many excellent manifestations.
It's a sweet kingdom, one in which I would happily live. I'd consider visiting if I were you.
Monson is the author, most recently, of "Letter to a Future Lover."
Lucky Alan and Other Stories
Doubleday: 176 pp., $24.95