This Shape We're In by Jonathan Lethem

My rather unique circumstances have made it so that I am too stressed/busy to write anything of real substance but I have enough free time to read. As a result you will have to make due with off the cuff comments rather than any polished or well thought out views (I know, I know, when was the last time I posted something other than off the cuff comments?).

I don’t know much about Jonathan Lethem. I know – or at least I think I know – he lives in Brooklyn, or used to, and that he is not easily categorized by genre but combines elements of sci-fi and fantasy into his work. He seems a popular writer that has garnered some real respect, however, so when I stumbled upon This Shape We’re In during my last visit to Half Price Books I picked it up figuring it would be a nice slim volume to take on my trip.

Well, it certainly was a slim volume; weighing in at 55 pages. But it is hard to describe the book. This review captures my initial uncertainty when I finally did pick it up to read:

It’s not clear what kind of book you’re going to get when you pick up Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Shape We’re In’. The cover illustration suggests some bizarrely humorous take on ‘Fantastic Voyage’; the back cover text speaks of an endless orgy; the DJ flap contains a quote about absolute black reflecting absolutely. There’s no solid information with which to render judgment, no concrete indication that this is science fiction, literature or something in-between. All the specifiers have been neutered. You’re buying a piece of fiction by Jonathan Lethem. Abandon all genres, ye who enter here.

The reviewer goes on to claim that the book is “a very fine novella” and “consistently fascinating and hilarious.” I am not sure I would go that far. Interesting, yes. Humorous at times, yes. But not “consistently fascinating and hilarious.” As long as I am ripping off other people’s reviews allow me to borrow this particular review for a plot summation:

The book concerns the activities of Henry Farbur, a cretinous drunk of an Everyman who lives in the bizarre world inside a Shape of somewhat indeterminate biological form– Henry and his wife have a burrow in the bowels, while there’s a cathedral in the left lung, and so on. The purpose of the shape is a subject for much speculation among the inhabitants– religions have sprung up asserting that it’s a bomb shelter, or a generation starship, or something else entirely.

In fact, The Library of Babel review does a pretty good job of capturing my overall reaction so let me quote that too:

There’s some snappy writing here, as Henry and his stooge Balkan embark on a quest to find the third eye, with Henry abusing everyone he encounters verbally and otherwise. The final revelation of the purpose of the Shape and the red phones from Central Command was unexpected and clever, which counts for something, but I’m still not entirely sure what the point of the whole thing was.

True dat.

Actually, I think McSweeney’s, who published the novella, had a pretty good blurb as well:

Lethem, author of the bestselling Motherless Brooklyn, returns in concentrated form – packing twice the adventure into one-eighth the pages. This book could be some kind of allegory book, but it might not be an allegory book at all. It involves people and drinking and people looking for a giant eye. It is among the best things Mr. Lethem has written. This book is a very slim hardcover book, and it is priced at $9. It is be priced at $9 because Mr. Lethem asked McSweeney’s how low a book of this size could be priced without everyone losing money. “Could we get it under $10?” he asked. We did some math and guessed that $9 would be possible.

What is the bottom line? Well, if you like your stories short and weird, or if you are a fan of Lethem, I would encourage your to pick up This Shape We Are In. I certainly got a chuckle or two out of it, and the book is handsomely bound and illustrated, but of course I didn’t pay the full $9.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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