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NEW YORKER Stories

Jonathan Lethem

"Procedure in Plain Air"

October 26, 2009

Jonathan Lethem keeps two balls in the air here. First, there is the queasy shock, itself sadly familiar, of deadpan atrocity. While a bystander registers nothing more intelligent than the familiar querulousness of a dreams, an unknown man, bound and gagged, is confined to a small cell that is dug out of a city street. Second, there is the bystander's equally nightmarish complicity. Mr Lethem strives to make this figure, a man called Stevick, sympathetic, but only in order to intensify our sense of his moral inadequacy. This leads me to spot a third ball: the society to which Stevick belongs has extinguished the lamp of humane enlightenment. Stevick's fellow city-dwellers are subhumanly self-absorbed, preoccupied by their own status in a rat race.

A parable for our times? Is there anyone still in need of such lessons who is also capable to taking them? The most shocking thing about "Procedure in Plain Air" is its familiarity. The seam between the everyday the coffee shop, the ex-girlfriend and the improbable dig we must? has been completely effaced, so that while our higher intelligence keeps sniffing improbabilities, the rest of us is horribly at home. This is a reflection less of the state of American society today (or whatever) and more an indication of Mr Lethem's skill as a writer. I am not entirely sure that the skill is deployed to a literary effect here, but it is unquestionably and effectively put on display.

My first response to the story was that this is an eye-opening story for high-school students. But that's anachronistic: my second thought was that high-school students might very well think that incarcerating people in pits is cool. We may not have descended to undermining our streets with little prisons, but we do at times seem to have reached the level of inconsequence that Mr Lethem has imagined for his grim fable.

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