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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.

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