Out of this world

Jonathan Lethem's new novella is surreal sci-fi with an aura of allegory.

May 2, 2001 at 12:00 am

Before the 1999 publication of Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem was one of those underappreciated writers whose books are passionately discussed in coffeehouses and lent from friend to friend but don't sell too many copies. Although by no means an underground writer--all of his novels and his collection of short stories were published by major trade houses and reviewed in mainstream periodicals--his eccentric and literate science-fiction novels proved too blackly comic for genre fans and too outré for general readers. His first two books, Gun, With Occasional Music (1994) and Amnesia Moon (1995), successfully leavened Philip K. Dick's darkly funny surrealism and convincing paranoia with a fresh, distinctive vision and voice. In his next two novels, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) and the sublime Girl in Landscape (1998), Lethem exchanged hyperactive invention for emotional warmth while continuing to explore science fiction's varied terrain.

Motherless Brooklyn was a departure for Lethem: a moody, sometimes hilarious crime novel set in contemporary New York and narrated by a Mafia errand boy and self-styled private eye whose Tourette's syndrome makes him a perpetual outsider. Exhilarating and utterly original, the book was a bestseller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In light of its success, Motherless Brooklyn seemed like an appropriately thoughtful and downbeat farewell to science fiction. But Lethem's new book, a slim and enjoyably disorienting novella, revisits the genre.

Infused with Lethem's stream-of-consciousness comic sensibility and a post-Cold War cynicism, The Shape We're In is set in an enclosed, vessel-like world called "the Shape." Farber, Lethem's wisecracking narrator-protagonist, is an ex-military man living in the bowels of the Shape. His work as a garbage hider, uselessly moving trash from one place to another, and his desperate alcoholism have dulled his ambitions. But when his former aide-de-camp Balkan informs him that he has seen Farber's runaway son in a distant part of the Shape, the two embark on a surreal, Fantastic Voyage-like odyssey to find him. Along the way, the pair encounters the various subcultures that have developed in each of the Shape's sections, from religious fanatics to dangerously inept militia types. As he travels through the Shape, Farber begins to understand what its original purpose might have been and discovers his own destiny.

Lethem's corporeal conceit is at once confusing and clever, giving his otherwise slight tale an aura of allegory that is not entirely dispelled by story's end. Nonetheless, This Shape We're In is little more than a literary sorbet meant to delight the palate between more substantial courses. With the right illustrator--Geoff Darrow, Bill Sienkiewicz, or even Chester Brown, who provides the comical illustration for the book's jacket--This Shape might have made an effective graphic novel; elaborate images would lend Lethem's brief narrative an epic sweep that the prose alone lacks. Even as a handsome and inexpensive hardcover, Lethem's quirky effort probably will not attract the vast audience he found with Motherless Brooklyn. Those who have been following his career from the beginning, however, will welcome it as an agreeable return to genre form.

Mahinder Kingra is a contributing writing for Baltimore City Paper where this piece originally appeared. Send comments to [email protected].