Although Lethem is claimed by the science fiction community as one of its own--last year, Locus magazine bestowed its Best First Novel award on his Gun, with Occasional Music--this relative newcomer's extraordinary work is really extra-genre, in the manner of Borges or William Burroughs. Each of the seven unsparing stories in this collection hangs a tale of considerable emotional and intellectual power on a futuristic hook. In ""The Hardened Criminals,"" convicts in a state of semi-suspended animation have been set into a prison wall. ""Light and the Sufferer"" features a race of mute, panther-like space aliens who are visiting Earth. In ""Forever, Said the Duck,"" a couple throws a party whose guests include virtual-reality copies of every lover the couple has known. It soon becomes clear that these hooks are in no way the focus of the stories. The space panthers seek out the depredations of drug culture, for instance, and when Nick Marra, the protagonist of ""The Hardened Criminals,"" is jailed, he has an opportunity to meet his long-absent father, fused into the wall 13 years before. Lethem surpasses himself in this collection. The opening story, ""The Happy Man,"" is a perfect parable about a man, Tom, allowed to return from death for short stretches to provide for his family. To do this, he must navigate Hell--an Alice-in-Wonderland environment ruled by a rapist incongruously called the Happy Man. Once in the real world, Tom struggles with his son, Peter, to unravel the Freudian mystery of that nightmare landscape, and winds up inventing a new hell for himself. In this story and a few others here, Lethem has created tales of such resonance that they graft themselves onto the subconscious. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 10/02/1996 Release date: 10/01/1996 Genre: Fiction
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