The New Yorker Reader: “Lostronaut,” by Jonathan Lethem

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11/13/2008 6:30 PM |

So this is what the volume knob’s for.

I’m inclined to believe that this is the first time the words “crystal meth and threesomes” have appeared, in this order, in the New Yorker; and I harbor a further suspicion that this also occurred to Jonathan Lethem, and was perhaps a deciding factor regarding the inclusion of this rather gratuitous detail. But I digress, and I haven’t even started yet.

I’m also inclined to think that Jonathan Lethem recently saw Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (as should you, if you haven’t, or even if you already have), for the almost existential sense of outer space as a languorous drift towards inevitable death. (And the greenhouse and solar panel repair session.) Although, if I had read Solaris — as I can only assume I-was-a-teenage-sci-fi-geek Lethem has, and probably multiple times — I’d probably trace this story back thataway instead.

Despite or perhaps because of the ironically bubbly tone — meth orgies and a chatty, flighty delivery — this is mostly a very sad, earthly story about being lost in space as metaphor. The pullquote on puts it all out there:

We’re soaring atoms, Chase, that’s what orbit consists of, the inhuman hastening of infinitesimal specklike bodies through an awesome indifferent void…

Sure, but I actually prefer the opening lines, a stranded astronaut’s communique to her earthbound beloved: “I am trying to ‘feel’ November, yours and mine,” though of course there are no seasons where she is. This, I think, is a more subtle and affecting rendering the central metaphor of being cold, adrift, remote. Our narrator has to make a conscious effort to think her way into the same place as her boyfriend — to be on the same wavelength requires an effort that, increasingly throughout the story, exceeds her ability. She fights to retain her memories, and loss creeps, inevitable, like the eternal weeds colonizing the man-made spaceship. (Or like this: “Our breath fogs any window we turn to. We’re moisture, Chase, we’re returning to dew.” Dust to dust, sort of; Lethem tends to explain his metaphors like that, which for some reason I don’t generally mind.) The story ends with our narrator’s memories becoming ever blurrier, her boyfriend’s picture ever more elusive in her mind — the spacecraft has already gone dark. The impossibility of permanently grasping something, of fixing something in the world or the mind, is what this one’s all about, this love story taking place in drifting-away infinity.

One Comment

  • This story made me think of Theodore Sturgeon’s story “The Man Who Lost the Sea”, so I searched for it on google and you can read it on, and surprise surprise Lethem wrote the foreword to that collection. I wonder if Lethem saw “When We Left Earth” on Discovery, for those walk in space parts and how that feels. That was my favorite part of the story. Didn’t have that nice kicker or twist of ending though. Also I had that “wait, this is a woman narrator?” feeling. I’m not sure if he captures the right feel here, if that makes sense.