Brought to you by guest reviewer Erin
Anna Karenina left her husband for a dashing officer. Lady Chatterley left hers for the gamekeeper. Now Alice Coombs has her boyfriend for nothing … nothing at all. Just how that should have come to pass and what Philip Engstrand, Alice’s spurned boyfriend, can do about it is the premise for this vertiginous speculative romance by the acclaimed author of Gun, with Occasional Music.
Alice Coombs is a particle physicist, and she and her colleagues have created a void, a hole in the universe, that they have taken to calling Lack. But Lack is a nullity with taste—tastes; it absorbs a pomegranate, light bulbs, an argyle sock; it disdains a bow tie, an ice ax, and a scrambled duck egg. To Alice, this selectivity translates as an irresistible personality. To Philip, it makes Lack an unbeatable rival, for how can he win Alice back from something that has no flaws—because it has no qualities? (Amazon)
There’s a quote that reads something like this: “500 readers could all read the same book, and interpret it 500 different ways”. In psychology there is a phenomenon called Observer Bias: a researcher expects participants to act in a certain way, and during an experiment unconsciously influences their behavior; thus creating the result he expected in the first place. Similarly, a participant may act the way they believe they are expected to, thus skewing the results.
That is essentially the premise of this book. Philip Engstrand, a professor of Anthropology at an unnamed West Coast school, studies and teaches the human compulsion to find meaning out of nothing. So when a physics professor creates a Nothing during an experiment, the whole campus, and most especially Philip’s physicist girlfriend Alice, gets swept up in it.
There is science in this book, but it’s based on new, very theoretical work. Since everything is viewed through an anthropologist, what little theory you might need to know is explained in layman’s terms, and since it’s fictional Quantum mechanics everything else is up to conjecture (one scientist actually says that Philip has as good a chance at explaining what’s really going on as anyone in the physics department). This is by no means a hard science fiction book. The focus is really more about humanity, how people react to each other in relationships, to the world around them, and to changes in everyday life. Science just happens to be a catalyst.
I noticed some Alice in Wonderland parallels (or maybe I was projecting?) that I enjoyed, and honestly kept me from getting bored in some places. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they were glaringly obvious, and some felt like they were forced in so that the author could check a Wonderland character off of his list. This is my first book by Jonathan Lethem, and I got the impression that this author likes to hear himself talk.
I really liked the idea of this book, but I didn’t read it right away. It actually sat on my shelf for two years before I got to it. It does read easily, but after I finished I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. It was interesting, but not something I’ll read again. If you’re on the fence about it and have something else that you’re more excited about reading, read the other book. You’ll get to this book eventually, but if you force yourself through it I think you’ll end up hating it.