by Jonathan Lethem ‧ RELEASE DATE: March 12, 1997
Lethem, a witty spinner of bizarre tales (The Wall of the Sky, 1996, etc.), moves into somewhat more accessible territory with this story of a would-be Alice in Wonderland and the man who would prefer to keep her on this side of the looking glass. Philip Engstrand, an anthropologist who studies academia, is happily involved with particle-physicist Alice Coombs. When an experiment by Alice's Nobel-winning colleague, Professor Soft, goes awry, a void that may be a portal to an alternate world is created. Before this, Alice has befriended two blind men who maintain an intense, codependent relationship with each other--their names are Ethan and Garth--becoming their friend in part because she believes that Garth's special perceptual abilities may aid in her work. Meantime, Professor Soft's void refuses to disappear and acquires a name, Lack, as well as intelligence and a personality with distinct preferences: It accepts some items offered it (pistachio ice cream, a peach-colored lab cat), while rejecting others. Alice grows emotionally remote and begins spending all of her time in Lack's chamber, and Philip begins to suspect that Alice has fallen out of love with him and in love with Lack. As Philip attempts to comprehend Lack and reconnect with Alice, he becomes entangled with many other characters: The blind men, at Alice's suggestion, move into the apartment she and Philip once shared; Cynthia Jalter, Evan and Garth's therapist, develops a serious crush on Philip; and two professors, a preening Italian physicist and a fussy deconstructionist, offer various absurd explanations (scientific, philosophical, semiotic) for Lack's existence. Eventually, Philip, desperate to win back Alice's love, is forced to confront Lack on his own. The intriguing, if gimmicky, premise sometimes feels a bit thin, like a Donald Barthelme story stretched to novel length. But Lethem's clear-eyed prose and believably strange people ultimately make for a moving tale of narcissism and need.
Pub Date: March 12, 1997
Page Count: 256
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1997
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