There is certainly a portion of readers who read and enjoy short fiction, but equally certain is that novels get most of the love. Those readers’ loss. Writing a form of art that exists in different shapes and sizes, short fiction presents its own challenges and limitations, meaning that a truly good writer is master of all, and when the reader finds one who is particularly good at short and novel-length, all the better. Jonathan Lethem is one such writer, and his latest collection Lucky Alan and Other Stories (2015) is an example why.
‘Dynamic’ one word to describe the collection, Lucky Alan is one unpredictable story after another. Differing in style, prose, perspective, realism, setting, aim, etc., each story stands alone, which, in my opinion, is a great selling point to any collection or anthology. Diversity keeping content fresh regardless of quality, the mystery of what comes next is often enough able to keep pages turning.
Kicking things off with the title story, “Lucky Alan” is an off-kilter character study of two men whose relationship is both amiable and antagonistic. One an ordinary middle-aged New Yorker and the other a minor film director, the two occasionally meet up for wine and conversation, but are never fully open with one another given the limitations of their personalities. It’s the evolution of these meetings, however, where Lethem heightens the tension between the two to display the subtle aspects of character that ultimately complete their mini-portraits. For some the story may be pretentious, but for readers who appreciate what certain writers are capable of, “The King of Sentences” is a full-on display of precise, often subtly humorous prose (with such a title, the author had better be prepared to deliver) that highlights one aspect of the reader-writer relationshiup from the perspective of two bookshop employees who are head-over-heels in love with a certain writer’s oeuvre and want to meet him. The meeting tells all.
Destroying the notion of fluid, graceful prose “Traveler Home” tells of a man accustomed to urban life spending time at a lone, countryside house, and the adventure he gets into taking his dog into the cold and snow to use the bathroom. Perhaps derived from Lethem’s experiences in rural Maine, it’s a skewed presentation of atavism with strong fable-overtones, written in some of the most lean, clipped prose the reader will ever have encountered. Featuring random comic book characters, from the fantastical to the real, who are torn from their pages and deposited on a deserted island, in “Their Back Pages” Lethem plays with the conventions of comic books from a real-world perspective, further fuzzying the divide between insular forms of entertainment like comic books and real-world relevancy.
Almost Borgesian, in “Procedure in Plain Air”, Lethem opens on an absurd scene wherein an ordinary man, Stevick, is having coffee one day in a NYC café, only to have a group of men arrive, dig a hole in the sidewalk beside him, deposit a live man inside, and board the hole over, giving the bewildered Stevick an umbrella afterwards to protect the man from the rain. The absurdity achieving new heights as the story progresses, in the final few paragraphs things click together in a manner that would seem to highlight the dark undertones of being complicit with government “secret” operations—Stevick’s ultimate fate the telling blow.
Lethem involved with all kinds of criticism, not just literary, it was perhaps inevitable that he looked to apply film criticism to the pornography industry. “The Porn Critic” tells the tale of one such writer and his experience bringing a group of women back to his apartment—an apartment packed to the gills with material awaiting review. Interestingly a comprehensive story, the women’s reaction is and isn’t what the reader could expect. An abstract premise that slowly takes on a life of its own, in “The Empty Room” a militant father decrees that one room of their family’s house is to be kept empty at all times. It can be used after a child or parent has signed on a form, but must be emptied of everything once the person is done using it. Told through the eyes of the son who grew up in this house, it’s only in coming into more mature contact with the wider world that he realizes the complete implications of the room.
Funny metaphorical commentary on blogging and the egoism that often goes hand in hand with said form of social media, “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” is a day in the life of an internet blogger presented as a king ruling his castle, interacting with his subjects (who are in fact commenters, viewers, fellow bloggers, etc.). The self-righteousness is at moments laugh out loud. Though seeming a commentary on carnivorism at the outset, the last story in the collection “Finding Vegan” expands itself to be wider commentary on the state of Western society. Akin to the film “Little Miss Sunshine” in aim, it thankfully remains more stop-and-think fiction than message fiction in telling of a trip a man takes with his family to Sea World and the animals—in all forms—they encounter there.
In the end, Lucky Alan and Other Stories is a versatile, absorbing, intelligent, and well written collection of short stories. Lethem changing up style, prose, theme, and premise, each story is clearly distinguished from the next, with the added value there are no one-offs. Attention and purpose provided, even the ‘lighter’ stories have a layer or two beyond the surface. It is a relatively short collection with only nine stories, but given said diversity and depth, still feels substantial. In comparison to his early works, Lethem is proving to be more consistent and accomplished in terms of lexical precision and prosaic experimentation, meaning there is also a lot to be enjoyed in the collection from strictly a technique point of view, as well.
The following are the nin stories collected in Lucky Alan and Other Stories:
The King of Sentences
Procedure in Plain Air
Their Back Pages
The Porn Critic
The Empty Room
The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear