Authors: Jonathan Lethem
As She Climbed
Across the Table
“A bravura send-up of academic foibles.”
The New Yorker
“[It] has the disorienting quality of a fourth-dimension dream on a three-dimensional bed, interrupted by comic, down-to-earth rousings.”
“Entertaining, intelligently constructed, mind-bending.”
—San Antonio Current
“Bittersweet and often hilarious.”
“Crisp, ecstatic chapters and wonderfully likable characters make this parody of academia wickedly fun.”
St. Petersburg Times
“An extraordinary, fresh piece of fiction.”
—Jim Harrison, author of
Legends of the Fall
“Readers are destined to fall in love with both Alice and Lethem’s sentences as they embrace in this comic, cosmic novel.”
—Carol De Chellis Hill,
The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer
Henry James’ Midnight Song
“Never afraid to tweak genre, Jonathan Lethem is one of the most inventive writers in America.”
—Cathryn Alpert, author of
Jonathan Lethem is the author of the novels
Gun, with Occasional Music; Amnesia Moon; Girl in Landscape;
, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also written a collection of stories,
The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye
. His latest novel,
The Fortress of Solitude
, will be available from Doubleday in fall 2003. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Gun, with Occasional Music
The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye
As She Climbed Across the Table
Girl in Landscape
FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, MARCH 1998
Copyright © 1997 by Jonathan Lethem
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday, New York, in 1997. This edition published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
As she climbed across the table / Jonathan Lethem.
p. cm. — (Vintage contemporaries)
2. Discoveries in science—California—Fiction.
3. Occupational neuroses—Fiction.
4. Black holes (Astronomy)—Fiction. I. Title.
Author photograph © Ken Kobayashi
Random House Web address:
I knew my way to Alice. I knew where to find her. I walked across campus that night writing a love plan in my head, a map across her body to follow later, when we were back in our apartment. It wouldn’t be long. She was working late hours in the particle accelerator, studying minute bodies, pushing them together in collisions of unusual force and cataloging the results. I knew I’d find her there. I could see the swell of the cyclotron on the scrubby, sun-bleached hill as I walked the path to its tucked-away entrance. I was minutes away.
Unlike the physicists, my workday was over. My department couldn’t pretend it was on the verge of something epochal. When the sun set we freed our graduate students to scatter to movie theaters, bowling alleys, pizza parlors. What hurry? We were studying local phenomena, recent affairs. The physicists
were studying the beginning, so they rushed to describe or bring about the end.
As I hurtled toward her, carving shortcuts across the grass, violating the grid of concrete walkways, my heart was light. I was in orbit around Alice. I was a fizzy, spinning particle. I wanted to penetrate her field, see myself caught in her science gaze. Her Paradigm Eyes.
The supercollider stretched out, a lazy arm, across the piebald hills above campus. The old cyclotron was like a beehive on top. Underneath, a network of labs was dug into the hill. The complex grew, experiment by costly experiment, an architectural Frankenstein’s Monster to crush the human spirit. But as I approached the entrance, double doors of scratched Plexiglas, I felt immune. I knew what lay at the heart of the heartless labyrinth. No immensity was enough to dwarf me.
So I stepped inside. The facility was made of bland slabs of concrete, as if to refute the hyperactive instability of the atomic world. The walls were run through at random with pipes and electric cables, painted gray to match the concrete. The floor thrummed slightly. The facility might have been a giant ventilation system, and I a speck or mote. But I had my target. I walked undaunted.
Alice’s wing was empty, though. Alice was gone, and so were her students and colleagues. My footsteps echoing, I wandered the dingy concrete halls, searching the nearby labs. They were empty. Checked the muon-tank observation room. Empty. The computer center. I had never seen the computer center empty, without even a doleful supersymmetrist poring over high-resolution subatomic events, but it was empty now. I looked in at the beam-control room, but the doors were locked.
I was alone. Just me and the particles. I imagined them
resting at the end of a strenuous run through the supercollider, hovering in subzero silence, in states of calm nonexistence. The hum in my ears wasn’t really the particles, of course, but it could have been my fear of them vibrating in me. I got out of there.
In the curve of the corridor I ran into another ghost, another human particle haunting the abandoned wing. A student, half in and half out of his sweatshirt, rushing to the exit. At the sound of my steps his head emerged from the neck of the shirt.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
“It’s Professor Soft,” he said. “He’s succeeded in opening up a Farhi-Guth Universe.” He was so impatient to be past me that he burbled.
He pointed the way.
“Why are you leaving?”
“Soft wants footage, a document, to record the moment. I’m getting a camcorder. Reaction shots, in-camera editing.”
“Good luck,” I said.
He hurried away.
I went to the elevator. I knew about Soft’s experiment, his bubble. It was the topic of plenty of hushed, reverent faculty discussions. I knew I should feel the breath of history at my neck as I plummeted down into the depths of the complex, to the laboratory where the false vacuum bubble was being reared under Soft’s firm hand. Soft and his team were compressing matter, in an attempt to create a new universe.
The physics department, Alice included, specialized in the pursuit of tiny nothingness. Soft had the audacity to pursue a big nothingness. If his work succeeded the inflationary bubble would detach and grow into a universe tangential to ours. Another
world. It would be impossible to detect, but equally real. Soft was merely trying to reproduce the big bang.
The crowd in the Cauchy-space lab observation room was oblivious to my arrival. Everyone was there: the students who ran the beam, the muon lab staff, the supersymmetrists, Alice and her students. They huddled in collective awe before the pixel-screen image of Soft’s false vacuum bubble.