Jonathan Lethem, “Pending Vegan” (Short Story)

PendingVegan

It had gone on too long, my not reading Jonathan Lethem. The omission was not deliberate; I just hadn’t gotten around to it. The New Yorker (April 7, 2014, issue) changed that.

His story “Pending Vegan,” however, did not dispose me well to Lethem. It had that jocular, mocking, un-serious tone of “The Christmas Miracle” but without the redemptive ending. (On a side note: There are too many stories about outside forces taking over our brains. Here it’s Celexa; in Rebecca Curtis’s piece, Bartonella.) The following paragraph illustrates my meaning:

The girls found their boldness and pushed up front, then relented, and were supplanted in turn by other eager, deprived children, presenting their faces in what he imagined was for the birds a wave of florid psychosis. In the context of their species, these flamingos were like space voyagers, those who’d return with tales beyond telling. Except that they’d never return. You might as well have immersed the birds in a bathysphere and introduced them to the orcas, or dosed their food with lysergic acid.

But I could have chosen any paragraph because they are all pretty much like this one. I know in the end it’s a matter of personal preference, but I can’t help but find the piece overwritten. This scene is just not important enough for so many words to be dedicated to it, so much effort expended in colorful comparisons. The self-mocking hyperbole is at such a height as to be irritating: the “deprived children,” “florid psychosis,” not to mention the references to plunging the flamingos in the orca tank (which must, of course, be rendered as “immers[ing] the birds in a bathysphere and introduc[ing] them to the orcas”) or getting them hopped up on LSD (“dos[ing] their food with lysergic acid”).

The protagonist Paul Espeseth is sketched as a timid, mentally fragile coward, hen-pecked by his wife and ruled by his children. I cannot relate to his many neuroses, so superficial as to be meaningless. Yes, they are supposed to be superficial. That is why he is “Pending Vegan” and not Vegan. But it is all so silly that there’s nothing for a reader to latch onto, no emotional hook.

Is Paul Espeseth supposed to be some sort of latent environmentalist? As a child, he fantasizes about slicing through all the man-made structures in the landscape. As an adult, he worries about environmental unsustainability, animal cruelty. But privately. One gets the sense his all-business, no-nonsense wife would not be sympathetic (unless this impression is just a symptom of Celexa withdrawal–we cannot know for sure). Isn’t that funny? The stern, impatient wife who has no use for her husband’s weaknesses? So funny that I see it in story after story, ad nauseum. Anyway, he is weak. Weak and mewling and without the courage of any conviction. I would have no use for him either.

And what about Maurice, the charmingly disturbing Jack Russell terrier? Is the guilt over abandoning Maurice at the root of Paul’s new-found concern over animal welfare? It would be too gauche to say so explicitly. But the suggestion is there. We are supposed to care about the reunion at the end. Lethem has been pointing to it (albeit obliquely) the whole time. Only, I don’t care. I am weary of this story and stories like it.

This is not how I want to write.

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