As She Crawled Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday 1997 212 pp. 22.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Boy loves Girl. Girl loves unprecedented Event created on a table in the Cauchy-space university physics lab, a stabilized parallel universe named Lack. Boy pursues Girl, jealous of parallel universe and its, er, pull. Will Boy win Girl? Will Girl crawl into parallel universe and disappear, finally united with her Lack? These, and other wry questions are posed in Jonathan Lethamís As She Crawled Across the Table, a love story, an academic satire, and a light-hearted allegory about, among other things, epistemology and Otherness.

On his arrival at a new job as a social anthropologist studying academic environments at a California university, Philip Engstrand, discovered an unexpected "reward that was hidden inside the theories and buildings, like a pearl in an oyster, was the new assistant professor specializing in particle physics, Alice Coombs." With the physicist Alice, Engstrand treasured the feel of his initial singularity pressed against her spherical symmetry. They thrived.

Until, that is, the Lack developed. "The physics department, Alice included, specialized in the pursuit of tiny nothingness." Professor Soft, Aliceís colleague, "had the audacity to pursue a big nothingness. If his work succeeded the inflationary bubble would detach and grow into a universe tangential to ours. Another world. It would be impossible to detect, but equally real. Soft was merely trying to reproduce the big bang."

The Lack stabilizes on a table, and Alice is drawn, moth-like, into its influential orbit, abandoning her love for Philip in hopes of uniting with the Lack. She begins to develop mental problems, and Professor Soft, concerned about her erratic behavior, enlists Jonathan to keep watch over her. Jonathan readily agrees, hoping to win her back from the Lack.

Jonathan undergoes many indignities during his vigil, including having his apartment invaded by two blind men who "listened too hard." Since they are friends of Aliceís, he endures them, but he is finally driven to drink at a bar that was "tame and suburban, a fifties cocktail lounge not yet refurbished by student irony."

There he meets Cynthia Jalter, a psychiatrist who tells him, "in the larger sense my research is into the delusory or subjective worlds that exist in the space between the two halves of any dual cognitive system. It applies to any coupling, from obsessive twins all the way down to a chance momentary encounter in public, between two strangers."

Drunk, and hoping she can help him with the dual cognitive system of Alice and the Lack, he follows her to her office, one that she shares with Dr. Flapcloth, a "vagina ecologist," whose studies involve considering "the ecology of the vagina, the vagina as environment, rather than just negative space."

But the office "had no windows. It was like being submerged in a glass of lukewarm eggnog." There, she unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him. Jonathan is distracted by the office, which "is like the living quarters of a space capsule they would use to send television talk-show hosts to other worlds."

Escaping from Dr. Jalter, Jonathan returns to the lab. But what man can compete with a "gaping rent in the fabric of the universe," one that is, moreover, "playing hard to perceive?"

Jonathan soldiers on. He learns that in reproducing the big bang, Soft only completed half the task. In talking to a researcher, he learns that "Consciousness creates reality. Only when there is a mind to consider the world is there a world. Nothing before, except potential. Potential this, potential that. The creation event, the big bangóit was the creation of enormous potential, nothing more."

Jonathan has a choice. In merging with the Lack, in providing the consciousness that would fulfill it, he could bring into being something that would make him worthy of Alice. Will he make up for the Lackís lack? Will Alice crawl across the table? Suffice to say that, even in parallel universes, love does conquer all.

While Lethamís novel may sound arcane and precious, itís not. It embodies a distilled, gently silly look at the world that suggests that love, like parallel universes, is something beyond our comprehension and control. Even if you canít tell Schrödingerís cat from your own, youíll still enjoy As She Crawled Across the Table.