Lethem’s penchant is always for the dysfunctional, for characters who have at least one screw loose and this is no different. Here he chooses academia to dramatise his vision of our dysfunctional world. Probably no one will ever write a better and more hilarious spoof of academia than Pale Fire but As She Climbed Across the Table certainly has its moments.
It’s one of those novels that is almost entirely generated by one idea. The idea is what if a physics department created a portal into another universe? This portal, known as Lack, is seemingly endowed with intelligence, rather like a cash machine in that it will reject anything put into it that it doesn’t like. It accepts all manner of things, a pomegranate, a pair of socks, the campus cat but rejects most other things. Alice, the girlfriend of the narrator, and a particles physicist becomes convinced Lack has personality and a consuming crush on her part begins. Alice has found her wonderland.
The novel is narrated by Philip, a professor of anthropology (the fact he isn’t a scientist means the science in the novel is articulated in layman’s terms and so very easy on the eye and brain). Philip and Alice enjoy a healthy relationship before Lack arrives. But once Lack is in the picture everything starts coming apart. As we all know any lack can consume light matter and turn it dark. Lack will become Philip’s arch-rival and a direct confrontation becomes inevitable.
For such an inventive and clever book it’s very easy to read. Maybe the whimsy ultimately triumphs over deeper messages and the characters are sometimes close to pantomime figures but it’s a hugely enjoyable and thought provoking read with a wealth of genuine laugh out loud moments.