Skip to main content

New Yorker Fiction Review: "Pending Vegan" by Jonathan Lethem

Issue date: April 7, 2014

Jonathan Lethem may just be the hardest working contemporary writer in the business. I mean this guy is everywhere. He just released a big (both large and highly acclaimed) novel called Dissident Gardens recently and I understand he's coming out with another soon. Not to mention his previous bazillion books;
not to mention the fact that either his name, or something written by him, pops up regularly all over the high-brow and not-so-high-brow magazine press ever month; he just finished a novel called Friday at Enrico's on behalf of the book's original author, Don Carpenter, who died while in the midst of it....oh, and he also wrote the introduction to a recent biography of Norman Mailer. In short: Jonathan Lethem is a busier, more productive, and flat-out better writer than most of us can ever hope to be.

As for this story in particular...I wasn't overly impressed. I had took breaks of 24-hours or more in the midst of reading it, which is never a good sign, especially for a story as short as this one. However, there are some interesting themes here -- as always in Lethem's work -- worth discussing.

Briefly: the story follows an afternoon in the life of the main character Paul Espeseth, middle-aged father of two trying to deal with his own anxiety and depression while he navigates the on-going power-struggle of his domestic life. Mostly, he's losing. His emotional issues have put him at just enough of a disadvantage that his wife and kids are (essentially) running the show. As a result, he lives at a slight remove; he tries to engage and act-out the role of the concerned, playful, interested parent, and yet he cannot stop his overly-analytical mind from taking the fun and spontaneity out of everything. If that sounds familiar, it's because we're all like that sometimes, which is what makes a story like this interesting.

Interestingly, Paul has developed a sort of alter-ego and named it "Pending Vegan." Alter-ego is a slight misnomer, however. Pending Vegan is more of a challenge Paul throws down upon himself. Pending Vegan represents the progressive, more sensitive and forward-thinking side of himself that he's ashamed or not ready to bring out. This is a profound and deeply universal idea; that we think one way and behave another, or that we are constantly at war with ourselves over What We Want vs. What is Expected of Us. Lethem in fact mentions the psychological principle of "cognitive dissonance" -- the stress or frustration of living with two contradictory ideas in one's mind.

I don't know that Lethem has enough time here to fully and soundly drive this idea home or resolve Paul's conflict; such is the great challenge of the short story. I think he does a good enough job of introducing Paul and getting inside his head for just long enough to make the story at least somewhat memorable and to provide something for the reader to take away; however, this story feels incomplete. I think the problem is: Lethem fails to convince me that Paul is a likable or even worthwhile main character early on, and therefore I didn't care what happened to him after.

Furthermore, as a writer myself, I know there is an impulse to put a "button" or punchline at the end of a story. Stories, after all, need a beginning, middle and end. But when the button feels forced, it tends to taint everything that came before. The final scene with the dog (no spoilers (as if)) was cute but a.) extremely unlikely, and b.) kind of bullshit.

Look, this Jonathan Lethem we're talking about here. He could write something in his sleep and it would still be good...and this story does contain your RDA of interesting human insights; however, as happens sometimes when Big Time established authors appear in the NYer, this just does not seem like Lethem putting his best foot forward.


Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Apologizer" by Milan Kundera

Issue: May 4, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: It took me five years and three separate attempts to finish Milan Kundera's famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in spite of that, quotes and insights from that book still rattle round my head on a weekly basis. What I mean to say is: my feelings on Kundera are very similar to my feelings on Haruki Murakami. I enjoy reading his work, but in small doses, like this short story.

Like Murakami, Kundera uses elements of magical realism, but where in a Murakami story you might encounter a flying dolphin or a disappearing hotel or a person who has lived his whole life in the same room, refusing to leave, Kundera's magical realism offers more direct insights and perspective on real life.

In Kundera's worlds, time and space are malleable and everything that ever happened in history is happening at the same time, and the narrator is a completely omniscient, caring, witty, and hands-on god-like being.

And so it is with "The Apo…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Meet the President!" by Zadie Smith

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you told me when I was 12 that I'd be doing this I'd have been like, "Dork. There's no such thing as blogs," and I'd have been right...

Issue: Aug. 12 & 19, 2013

Story: "Meet the President!"

Author:Zadie Smith

(Please note: I've developed a highly sophisticated grading system, which I'll be using from now on.  Each story will now receive a Final Grade of either READ IT or DON'T READ it. See the bottom of the review for this story's grade...after you've read the review, natch.)

Plot: Set in England, far into the future (lets say 2113) a privileged youth of 15, named Bill Peek, encounters a few poor villagers from a small, abandoned coastal town on the southeast shore. He meets a little girl named Aggie, who is going to her sister's funeral. Peek is cut-off from real life by a sophisticated video game system that is implanted in his head, therefore th…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…