You could easily call this short story collection Lucky Reader, because Jonathan Lethem fans will find work previously published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, and Conjunctions all in one place. These nine stories range from fairly straightforward realism to bizarre forays deep into the imaginary. They’re quite different from one another, having in common only certain stylistic preferences of Lethem’s and a preoccupation with the often-hazy lines between the real, surreal, and entirely unreal.
Fans of Lethem’s novels will recognize his brand of humor as it vacillates between wry cynicism and playful absurdity. Readers new to Lethem who are willing to put a little work and thought into these pieces will find them rewarding, but they are thoughtful, challenging stories without blatant moral messages, formulaic plots, rising action followed by complete catharsis, or immediately relatable characters—if you prefer light reading, this is not the book for you. Funny as his characters may be, these are think pieces at heart.
Among the best stories in this collection are “Lucky Alan,” the modern folk tale “Traveller Home,” and the hilarious yet depressing “Pending Vegan.” The titular story opens the book, and its nesting-doll structure allows unexpected twists and familiar scenes to exist side by side. The choppy style of “Traveller Home” is a departure from Lethem’s novels, but it lends itself both to getting you into the main character’s state of mind and to breathing life into a myth that could’ve otherwise gone stale. Internet junkies may relate more to the surreal blog tale, “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear,” nostalgia junkies will recognize the way the characters in ”Their Back Pages” literally eat the past to reach their futures, and the gainfully unemployed might better identify with the coffee shop lurker in the Barthelme-esque “Procedure in Plain Air,” but parents of young children will look into “Pending Vegan” as if into a mirror. “Pending Vegan” does best what each story, in its own way, tries to do—question reality in a way that points to your own life. The effects of drugs on perception, the cognitive dissonance that comes with adulthood, and the tragicomic hypocrisy of action versus desire raise enough uncomfortable questions to get you squirming in your seat. Several of these stories also address technology– the unending screens pervading our lives—in subtle but clever ways.
Lethem often accomplishes all this concisely, conjuring with only a few words vast expanses of meaning. He even uses “judo” as a verb. Whether his characters visit the “bogus municipality called Fun Town” or contemplate “family life, a cataclysm of solitudes,” every word counts.