Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye, The
by Jonathan Lethem (1996)
“Inventive” is the word that springs to mind with this collection. It’s not executed all that well but the originality of concept is uniformly impressive.
“The Happy Man” starts the book off amazingly well, with a protagonist who has been resurrected in order to support his family but suffers a side effect of periodic returns to Hell. Lethem’s depiction of hell is authentically horrifying and creepy, and the entire premise is brilliantly original. Unfortunately the spell wears off by the end of the story and is punctuated by a too-conventional ending. I really think it needed to be either shorter and vaguer (to retain its momentum) or longer and more developed to become a fine novel. There was a lot going on with the four principal characters, certainly enough for a novel, and so much for a short story that the unique premise got smothered by it.
Despite the comparatively lame ending I had high hopes after the 1st story, hopes that were never met. “Happy Man” is by far the best story of the bunch, and all of the following stories suffer in comparison. “Vanilla Dunk” seems like a concept a middle schooler would have come up with and its entire execution is juvenile and superficial. “Forever, Said the Duck” and “Five Fucks” were virtually incomprehensible and seemed more like minor thought experiments, or maybe Richard Brautigan rip-offs. “Sleepy People” was basically the definition of “Meh.”
“Hardened Criminals” and “Light and the Sufferer” were better, a definite 2nd tier of quality, but they didn’t seem to really go anywhere, or maybe I just didn’t care about where they went. Either way that seems more an author than reader problem.
I also find myself getting hung up on the “Why” and “How” of many of these premises. Why is the prison built out of criminals when that seems like a pretty obvious security risk? Why are people just randomly sleeping and how does sleeping become plant fertilizer? How is everyone just okay with these weird panther-aliens walking around? Wouldn’t the government do something about that? How would basketball exo-suits ever become popular, and wouldn’t their “moves” strain the ligaments and muscles of their less capable wearers? This one’s more a reader problem I’m sure, just because I prefer a modicum of realism and not simply a bizarre premise. But if you don’t mind totally unfeasible premises, you might like this quite a bit.
To sum up: the stories are definitely interesting and compulsively readable, but they don’t amount to much. “The Happy Man” is the lone exception, with the bones of perfection but the flesh of something lesser. I do like Lethem’s direct and unadorned prose, and I’d still tepidly recommend the collection to horror/sci-fi fans in need of entertainment. Also, despite the unevenness of this collection Lethem has wormed his way onto my mental list of authors whose other works I need to check out.