Small Wonder

Cult novelist Jonathan Lethem finds out if good things really do come in small packages.

Good fiction, like a good meal, often benefits from an unusual combination of ingredients. In the case of This Shape We're In, a bizarre new short story masquerading as a novel, the combination of a free-range experimentalist like Jonathan Lethem and an equally adventurous publisher like McSweeney's has led to a singularly curious literary concoction.

Lethem, the genre-bending alchemist behind such gems as the coming-of-age outer space Western Girl in Landscape and the hard-boiled Tourette's saga Motherless Brooklyn, has made a career of risk-taking by combining seemingly antagonistic ideas and twisting them into uniquely beautiful fiction. McSweeney's Books, the recently created book publishing arm of author Dave Egger's often bizarre literary journal McSweeney's, has also, over the course of its first few published novels, proven itself to be equally gonzo in its literary choices.

From its inaugural effort, the hilariously pompous Neal Pollock's Anthology of American Literature, through the head-scratching Lemon, McSweeney's has shown a refreshing disdain for such publishing niceties as flashy marketing, exorbitant cover prices and mass-market appeal. Now, add to the eccentric catalog Lethem's new novel, a weird, 55-page short story published in hardcover for $9, and dropped in the public's lap sans any major advertising whatsoever. Defiantly uncommercial, it not only stands as a major dropped-trousers salute to the bloated publishing industry, it also illustrates a little-known dictum that goes something like this: When a cult-writer-on-the-verge-of-supernova success like Lethem (whose Motherless Brooklyn last year won the National Critics Circle Award for Fiction) agrees to publish what essentially amounts to a one-shot curiosity item guaranteed to not only miss the best seller lists, but also to possibly slip by even his own devoted fan base, you just know it's a "must read."

So what then, exactly, is this book about? Well, lots of things, although none of them are readily describable.

An affectionate homage to Isaac Asimov's sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage. A darkly comic fable about father/son relations. An allegorical, ginsu knife swipe at the sad state of our mindless, plastic consumer culture. A dissing of the Disneyfication of the modern world.

But let's stop there; any further literalization of the story's narrative would simply rob it of its opaque charms. In fact, it's Lethem's obvious delight in thick ambiguity, and McSweeney's refusal to spell out what it all means in bold, snappy copy on the book's dust jacket, that makes Shape's inconclusiveness all the more pleasurable.

Although writing in his typically crystalline style, Lethem here eschews much of the gorgeously tricky language on display in his full-length novels, opting instead for a (mostly) pared-down style befitting the story's fable-like qualities. But as always, he dazzles with the uniquely Lethemesque wordplay that simultaneously displays razor-like precision and dreamy surrealism, as in his description of a possibly "swinging" couples-only barbeque: "What I'd remembered as a quite spontaneous and free-form day-and-night grope-a-thon--sprawled, pulsing, inelegant bodies rich in scars, tattoos and cellulite, spilled wine, cigarettes stubbed in smeared plates of soft cheese and onion dip, weird fricative sounds and snorts of laughter--seemed to have hardened into precious ritual, a scene as glossy and predictable as silicone."

That having been said, This Shape We're In leaves readers wanting more, and not always in the good way. Due to its brevity, the truncated narrative leaves an aftertaste of dissatisfaction. Obviously, the story doesn't have the emotional breadth and intellectual depth of Lethem's best fiction (for that experience, run, don't walk, to find a copy of Lethem's masterpiece, As She Climbed Across the Table), and it is arguable that an allegorical fable such as this isn't striving for those kinds of connections in the first place. However, this particular tale tantalizes with numerous hints of something more than we are being given, of passions and ideas left unexplored, which makes its rather abrupt ending (just as its allegorical message becomes clear in the final pages, it's all over) all the more irritating. Without the surrounding structure of a short-story collection to help contextualize Shape's shape, Lethem floats untethered through a sea of ideas he either can't or won't investigate.

But this is mostly nitpicking. The problem with a writer of Lethem's prodigious talents is that the bar is set unnaturally high. Misgivings over This Shape We're In stem primarily from the happy frustration of reading a tasty literary appetizer from a master chef when what you really want is a full-course meal. It is to Lethem's credit as an artist that this frustratingly small nugget, by turns beautiful, intriguing and aggravating, displays a grander ambition than many more commercial writers manage in 400 pages of bland brain candy. And although the whole project feels like an off-hand, goofy lark, it falls right in step with Lethem's unpredictable literary trajectory.

What Lethem and McSweeney's obviously set out to do was create a quality curio item (a task they have completed with aplomb), and we can only hope that other talented writers will hook up with McSweeney's Books, allowing themselves the indulgence of creating non-commercial literature unencumbered by the rigid demands of big-house publishing.