Anna Karenina left her husband for a dashing officer. Lady Chatterley left hers for the gamekeeper. Now Alice Coombs has her boyfriend for nothing … nothing at all. Just how that should have come to pass and what Philip Engstrand, Alice’s spurned boyfriend, can do about it is the premise for this vertiginous speculative romance by the acclaimed author of Gun, with Occasional Music.
Alice Coombs is a particle physicist, and she and her colleagues have created a void, a hole in the universe, that they have taken to calling Lack. But Lack is a nullity with taste—tastes; it absorbs a pomegranate, light bulbs, an argyle sock; it disdains a bow tie, an ice ax, and a scrambled duck egg. To Alice, this selectivity translates as an irresistible personality. To Philip, it makes Lack an unbeatable rival, for how can he win Alice back from something that has no flaws—because it has no qualities? Ingenious, hilarious, and genuinely mind-expanding, As She Climbed Across the Table is the best boy-meets-girl-meets-void story ever written.
A poser of warped, philosophical conundrums whose witty, genre-bending novels are set in dysfunctional worlds of the present and near-future, Lethem (Gun, with Occasional Music) situates his fourth novel on the fictional campus of a Northern California university where a physicist, known as Professor Soft, has accidentally opened a hole in space, a portal to an alternate universe. Lethem's narrator is Philip Engstrand, a professor of anthropology studying "academic environments," who is the jealous boyfriend of Alice Coombs, a professor in Soft's lab at work on the physics of "tiny nothingness." Soft's vacuum, nicknamed Lack, is a gaping void that swallows some items into its universe-from an argyle sock to a grizzled lab cat-but ignores others. It soon becomes a campus sensation and Alice its most ardent enthusiast, but as Alice becomes increasingly obsessed with Lack, she retreats from Philip, who struggles mightily to reclaim her. Lethem's characters aren't emotionally complex: they aren't so much people as mobile talking units tumbling down a rabbit hole of sense and meaning while trying to sort out their personal lives. Yet it's hard not to get caught up in Philip's efforts to rescue Alice from Lack, or be unsettled by what happens in the novel's closing chapter, when he ventures too close to the brink. Lethem's reflections on being and nothingness are tempered throughout with a genuine silliness that helps make this one of the most engaging academic spoofs to emerge in the wake of Don DeLillo and David Lodge.