Jonathan Lethem — The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye

This collection of short stories from Berkeley-by-way-of-Brooklyn writer Jonathan Lethem explores the same sort of absurdist science fiction landscape as his novel Amnesia Moon. These seven pieces show the depth and breadth of Lethem’s creativity as he explores the outer reaches of this genre.

The stories that were previously printed in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine are among the standouts in this collection and speak both to the editor’s catholic tastes and Lethem’s ability to inhabit vastly different worlds and report back with chilling clarity.

The Happy Man, the lead off tale of a guy who spends half his time in hell and the other half trying to make up with his increasingly distant wife and troubled teenage son, sets the tone for the volume. In this troubling story, the reappearance of a ne’er-do-well uncle in his Earth-bound life begins to draw the two worlds into closer proximity. Lethem telegraphs his final blow but it is devastating all the same. This story stays with the reader and reveals the barely-disguised malice in our classic fairy tales.

Vanilla Dunk, is a slightly futuristic story of professional basketball in a time where the sport is in an advanced state of atrophy and has begun to consume itself like a snake eating its own tail. Powered exosuits give players the sampled skills of the greatest athletes of all time, turning the game into a live fantasy league.

Lethem uses the post-sport spectacle to probe the issues of race (when a white hotshot draws the much-vaunted skills of Michael Jordan) and fame like a tongue returning to the socket of a broken tooth. This is quite a different story than The Happy Man and it’s a testament to Lethem’s deft touch that one doesn’t need an understanding, or fondness for that matter, of basketball to enjoy it.

Not every story in The Wall of the Eye is a slam dunk, but the penultimate tale, The Hardened Criminals, shows what an incredible imagination Lethem possesses. To give away the story’s main conceit would be a crime in and of itself, but it ends up being a chilling indictment of the prison industry and the way that it is set up to strip away the humanity of those stupid, crazy, or unlucky enough to fall under its purview.

Lethem is a prolific novelist as well as short story writer and at times his prose reads dangerously close to poetry as in this introduction of the prison in The Hardened Criminals:

The prison was an accomplishment, a monument to human ingenuity, like a dam or an aircraft carrier. At the same time the prison was a disaster, something imposed by nature on the helpless city, a pit gouged by a meteorite, or a forest-fire scar.

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