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I’d never read anything by Jonathan Lethem before — in fact, I didn’t even realize he was considered a sci-fi author until recently. Like a lot of people, the first I became aware of him was with The Fortress of Solitude, a book I never read, which was often mentioned in the same breath as Michael Chabon‘s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a book I DID read, and for that matter enjoyed. So, I always had him pegged as a Literary-Type Author, and since a lot of Literary-Type Authors DO write what’s basically Respectable Science Fiction (come on, go back, re-read Infinite Jest and tell me that it’s not at a really base level SF), I suppose I was a little surprised to find that he’d apparently been part of that ghetto before.
Of course, Lethem IS a Literary-Type Author, and, of course, a SF author at the same time. If you ask me, the whole idea of there being an SF ghetto is pretty silly anyway, but, well, I guess that’s how the game is played. Whatever — if it gets people to read books they wouldn’t ordinarily, that’s cool… unfortunately, it can also scare people away from reading books they’d otherwise enjoy because “they don’t like Sci-Fi”. Which is, well, kinda silly. Since there’s bad sci-fi (and whoo, boy, have I read some of that!), but there’s also really bad Literary Fiction, too (and, again, whoo, boy, have I read some of that!).
However right now, you might be asking “OK, so this Lethem guy is apparently Sci-Fi and apparently also a serious Literary Fiction Author. How do I know he’s not a BAD SF and/or LFA?” And dear reader, I can explain in one sentence. Here goes.
Lethem wrote a short story about basketball that I could not put down.
If that doesn’t sound big, trust me, it is. I know NOTHING about, well, sports in general, with the exception of bowling. And, well, a lot of people will even debate whether or not bowling is a sport. But as far as sports-widely-accepted-as-sports go, I know nothing and typically have negative interest in. In most cases, I’d probably read the first few pages of the story (“Vanilla Dunk”, in this case) and go “Blah blah blah sports sports sports PASS” and skip over it. I admit, at first blush, my brain started to rebel and was thinking about skipping over the story, but then… it sucked me in.
That might be that it’s not completely about sports — the story can be read as a meditation on sampling, post-modernism, meta-fiction, race and a whole mess of other stuff. But while it might not be a straight sports story, a LOT of the action takes place on the court and is clearly written from the perspective of a fan. (Or at least someone who was so interested in researching basketball history that he comes off as a die-hard fan — which, in my eyes, is basically just as good, as if I were to research that kinda stuff, my eyes probably would start rolling up in the back of my head at the first mention of foul lines.) But what floored me was that “Vanilla Dunk” worked. For me, personally. I of course don’t mean that sports stories don’t or cannot work in general, but they’re fighting an uphill battle to keep my interest. And that’s cool — nothing against the genre in general, it just doesn’t typically resonate with me. But “Vanilla Dunk” did. I’m as shocked as you are.
The other stories in the volume are all very compelling and well-written as well. “Light & The Sufferer” was another one that grabbed me, and the world in “The Hardened Criminal” was terrifying — unfortunately to say why would be a definite spoiler, and I don’t want to ruin the shock. But it’s a very literal title, and that’s all I’ll say.
Before, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read The Fortress of Solitude; the synopses I’d read didn’t really grab my interest, and I’d kind of felt that I’d picked the right horse by going with Kavalier & Clay, published at about the same time. Now, I’m surprised at how stupid I was to think that there was a competition between them. I’m going to have to pick that one up pretty soon now, along with Lethem’s other books. Thanks, Janet, for giving this to me for my birthday and turning me on to Lethem — I just wish it didn’t take me as long as it did to pick up the book.