Lucky Alan: When the End Comes

Lucky Alan and Other StoriesLucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

Published: February 24th, 2015
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Surrealism
Format: Audiobook
Length: 4 hrs and 22 mins

The only thing I remember about Jonathan Lethem’s first collection of short stories is that he really liked abrupt endings. Lucky Alan is no different. Sometimes the endings work, and sometimes the stories just feel unfinished. That’s probably why this collection has so many one-star ratings – people assume that Lethem is trying to palm off his fragments on an unsuspecting public, and they react with vehemence.

Thing is, I think the one-star critics are being overly harsh. Yes, a few of these stories are duds, but the good ones far outweigh the misses, and it’s possible that Lucky Alan is Lethem’s strongest collection (although I’d have to re-read his earlier work for a definitive verdict). It definitely made me want to pick up his most recent few novels, and I haven’t been as interested in his work since he starting writing in a more exclusively literary vein.

Although I definitely recommend listening to the audiobook version of this collection – the narrators are all pretty great, even Lethem himself – all the stories (but one) are available online from their original publications.

Lucky Alan” read by Mark Deakins
Very much about New York and the people who live there. An actor and a theatre director strike up a casual friendship, and one day the director tells a story about his fraught relationship with a neighbor. Subtle but great. All about small details and the way people perceive each other and themselves.

The King of Sentences” read by David Wain
A couple is so obsessed with an author they call “The King of Sentences” that they travel to his hometown and stalk him until he appears at the local post office. The object of their affection responds with distaste but it doesn’t faze them in the least. Heightened and satirical but still entertaining – I could almost picture this as a sketch on Portlandia.

“Traveler Home” read by Mark Deakins
A man known only as Traveler survives a blizzard along with his dog, only to find a baby under odd circumstances. Lethem uses a stilted, affected style here that I found distracting. This out of all the stories felt the most like it was the first part of something unfinished.

Procedure in Plain Air” read by Amy Landecker
A road crew digs a hole in a sidewalk outside a coffee shop and puts a prisoner inside. The only witness feels responsible for the nameless, voiceless prisoner and decides to keep watch. I think I liked the oddness of the situation more than the story itself, which felt lacking in incident.

“Their Back Pages” read by Isaac Butler
Characters from classic newspaper comic strips crash-land on an island and slowly but surely devolve. This is probably the most stylistically ambitious of the stories in this collection, alternating between descriptions of comic panels and more traditional narrative scenes. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this story, but once I caught on to what was happening, I really enjoyed it.

The Porn Critic” read by Bruce Wagner
A man writes reviews of porn tapes for his job, but it ends up interfering with both his reputation and his personal life. This felt a bit reminiscent of a Woody Allen story in some ways, although far more realistic than most of Allen’s fiction. Both this and the title story are very stylistically similar, and both feel like they are specifically about New York City.

The Empty Room” read by Michael Goldstrom
A man designates one room in his house as the “empty room”, explaining to his family that they aren’t allowed to leave anything in the room once they finish using it. Over time, he ends up basically living in that room, away from his family. This story had a nice undercurrent of surrealism that helped bring home its more allegorical aspects. Additionally, although the ending is sudden, it works really well for the material.

The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” read by Jonathan Lethem
This story has one joke, really: that if a blog is like a house, a banned commenter is the rotting corpse left resting on the threshold. Once the joke becomes obvious, Lethem just keeps hammering it home. This is the only story in the collection that I’d consider an absolute dud.

Pending Vegan” read by Mark Deakins
A man who has stopped taking his antidepressants goes to SeaWorld with his family despite his looming sense of disaster. For whatever reason, this story wasn’t particularly memorable. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t really hold my attention, either. The main character’s anxiety and endless worrying didn’t really add up to much in the end.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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Strange Attractors by Charles Soule and Greg Scott

Strange AttractorsStory: Charles Soule
Art: Greg Scott

Published: April 9th, 2013
Publisher: Archaia Entertainment
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 128 pages

In Strange Attractors, Heller Wilson is a grad student studying complexity theory, a branch of mathematics devoted to the study of complex systems. He’s a career-minded guy, and is currently working on a thesis topic suggested by his advisor and designed specifically to get him hired at a high-paying job after graduation. Problem is, he’s struggling with the topic – comparing the resiliency of New York City after 9/11 to the struggles of New Orleans after Katrina – so he decides to track down a former Columbia professor who wrote about similar subject decades ago.

Wilson soon discovers that the professor, Spencer Brownfield, is a bit of an eccentric. Among other things, Brownfield explains that he eats exactly 1700 calories a day – no more, no less – and closes their meeting by releasing a rat into a crowded restaurant. However, Wilson is desperate for help with his thesis, so he persists and manages to talk Brownfield into giving him access to his research in exchange for helping with a few “projects”.

When Wilson shows up to help with those projects, Brownfield sends him off on a number of apparently random tasks without any explanation. Wilson cooperates gamely for a while, but when he eventually gets fed up and decides to quit, Brownfield surprises him by demonstrating what those seemingly random tasks can achieve when done in concert. It turns out that Brownfield is (he claims) using his theories to “adjust” events in New York City in subtle ways, continually working against the ever-increasing flow of chaos and darkness in the city. Brownfield explains that the reason New York City is so resilient is because he is working to keep it that way. Wilson is drawn back in, and soon becomes obsessed with Brownfield’s theories.

Strange Attractors is one of those stories that exists just on the edge of science fiction. Although the idea of using mathematical theories to control events in a city seems fanciful at first blush, upon consideration it feels like the sort of thing that might not be outside the realm of possibility. History caught up with William Gibson, after all. Accordingly, the book is simultaneously both grounded and magical, and the resulting mix is extremely appealing.

In some ways the premise reminded me a bit of the basic concepts of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, but here the idea of controlling future outcomes is real-time, personal and entirely specific to the city of New York. Brownfield considers himself NYC’s caretaker, and Wilson eventually admits to himself that he also feels a strong enough connection to the city that he wants to protect it. The author and artist clearly share that love of the city, and their devotion is part of what makes this story feel unique.

I also loved the art, which is gorgeously drawn and full of color. Whenever Brownfield or Wilson visualize possible outcomes, they are shown as a series of interlocking colored lines bouncing between people or objects. This conceit helps make Brownfield’s theories feel concrete, like something hidden in plain sight if you only know how to look. Also, color is used to signify the current state of the city – red for chaos, blue for stability – and the growing presence of redness helps to build tension throughout as Brownfield and Wilson work to save New York from impending cataclysm.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Strange Attractors, and will definitely be checking out other work by the same author. Recommended.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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