The Walls of the Sky the Walls of the Eye, Jonathan Lethem

Harcourt Brace, 1996, 293 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-15-100180-4

On the values of single-author collections: One could do worse to discover a new author that to peer into an anthology of his works. Not only are the stories shorter, but they also represent a good cross-selection of the author’s interests, strengths and weaknesses.

Jonathan Lethem is a relatively new author in the SF&F business. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music received good reviews, and winning at least two prizes (Locus, best first novel and Crawford, best fantasy novel). Furthermore, Lethem is now in nomination for a Hugo (best short story).

Having not read any of Lethem’s work before, I was intrigued. When I had the opportunity to pick up Walls…, I seized it. (Actually: Winning the book at a local science-fiction convention.)

The physical appearance of the book is horrible: Ugly cover art, carefully studied “wacky” fonts on the dust jacket, and “[These] pages are not acid-free” as jacket copy. No plot summaries anywhere. A creepy photo of the author. Weird stuff.

But truthful. What’s inside the book is even weirder. Consider:

  • A prison built, literally, of “hardened criminals”
  • A man alternating between his life… and his hell.
  • Basketball teams made of players playing other player’s talents.
  • An alien who follows you around… forever.

…and three other stories, one of them (Hugo-nominated) with a title that I’ll reproduce here, chastely, as “Five F*cks”. (The story itself is much more conventional, if barely coherent.)

Lethem loves the low life. Young criminals, pathetic losers, people stuck in aimless directions are the majority in these seven stories. No shining cyber-knights or larger-than-life superheroes populate this author’s realms. Gratuitous, unromantisized violence also finds its way into many tales, in sync with the uncompromising tone of the prose.

Lethem’s science might not exactly be wrong, but hard-SF it ain’t. We’re closer to Harlan Ellison than to Larry Niven. The book works better as urban fantasy than anything else. Lethem dreams up fascinating situations, but seldom explain them.

This intentional failure to explain also ties into a failure to resolve: Many stories are vignettes, without conflict or clear resolution. We often leave the protagonists in a situation as bad (or worse) than at the beginning of the narration.

(It should also be noted that the first-person narrator is a favourite of Lethem, counting for four of the seven stories.)

Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining collection. Some stories are average, but beg to be read again in a little while.

It’s not worth the hardcover price. It might not be worth the paperback price. But it’s probably worth the time to be read: Grab it from the local library, borrow it from a friend, but do cuddle up with Lethem’s words.

(If you only have time for one story, choose “Vanilla Dunk.”)

And keep reading single-author collections.

[January 1998: The Walls of the Sky, the Walls of the Eye won the 1996 World Fantasy Award for Best Story Collection.]

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