The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by Brian Orsak, March 16, 2001, Books

This Shape We're In

by Jonathan Lethem

McSweeney's Books, 49 pp., $9

It is a common mistake of book critics to fault a book for not being something other than what it is. Only the most obtuse of readers would hold up Stephen King's latest and say, with aplomb, "It fails to be Hamlet." That said, Jonathan Lethem's new novella This Shape We're In is not "literature." It neither aspires to beauty nor unearths emotion. Instead it slumps through the dregs of allegory, bad puns, and melodrama, evincing all the makings of a made-for-cable-TV sci-fi miniseries.

Lethem's previous works -- Amnesia Moon, Gun, With Occasional Music, and Girl in Landscape -- all blended elements of science fiction, crime noir, and metaphysics in the style of Philip K. Dick. Despite overtures otherwise, This Shape We're In fits well into this vein. The 49-page novella, written in the first person, relates the story of a retired military captain-cum-alcoholic's search for his runaway son. To boot, the entire corpus of players lives in the hollow body of a carnival horse. The inhabitants of the carnival horse have been "long-slumbering," lying in wait for an apocalyptic battle with the outside world. One gathers that the characters are bacteria or parasites or some pestilence that has collectively read The Iliad.

For those who enjoyed Lethem's earlier work, This Shape may be rewarding fare. It can be read quickly, has plot twists, and a conclusion. As in his previous works, Lethem is concerned with memory; those in the Shape are busy either forgetting or remembering. Lethem's references to memory are nearly pervasive, though his treatment of the subject is shallow, if not offhanded; Henry Fabur, the book's narrator, is drunk and harried for most of the book, hardly stopping to consider the familiar faces he encounters until his expected epiphany in the story's final passages.

The problem with This Shape We're In is that its prose -- reminiscent of film noir and bad David Lynch -- is clichéd, even if the plot is unique. Characters are stilted and seem like little more than the newly costumed cast from a canceled episode of Magnum P.I. Lethem's reputation as an important American novelist is growing, particularly following the publication of Motherless Brooklyn, which earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award. To read This Shape We're In and categorize Lethem as "important" dilutes the efforts of the "important" writers who have come before him.

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