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by Lawrence Krauser

reviewed by Mike Sugarbaker
March 21, 2001

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Back when Spike Lee first made Do The Right Thing, I remember his saying in an interview that one of his goals for the movie was to have heat be a character - he referenced some Hitchcock movie where this was done - to have something intangible, or without a voice at least, be as meaningful an actor as any of the human actors. Seattle-based playwright Lawrence Krauser has done something similar in his debut novel, Lemon - in fact, he's not only done it, but he's made the act of doing so the biggest theme in the book. The titular inanimate object becomes the most important thing in a man's life without ever demanding much direct focus, not to speak of ever saying a line.

In Lemon, a professional memo writer named Wendell, whose longtime girlfriend has just left him, gradually fixates on lemons in general (first noticing the little bin of lemon wedges behind a bar), then on one lemon in particular, which he nearly trips over in the lobby of his apartment building. He becomes increasingly reluctant to be without the fruit, keeping it on his desk at work, in his pocket at the bar, and on the table at cafes (causing confusion with waitresses). He loses his job at a firm run by a descendant of Buckminster Fuller (what the firm does, exactly, is never shown, but Bucky delivers lectures via videotape in the office's entryway), and eventually shacks up with the lemon in a house-sitting gig by the beach, in the cold pre-season.

That's what happens. Wendell is not what you'd call an action hero. In fact, that most tempting phrase to someone writing a review of Lemon - "growing obsession" - is more or less rendered moot. Nothing grows; Wendell starts the book as an odd duck, and pretty much stays that way. Of course, I may also believe this because I already knew what was going to happen. The spring-1999 issue of McSweeney's, the literary journal edited and published by Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers, essentially published an outline of the novel, in which each 2- to 10-page section (on average) was boiled down to a single, numbered line. Lemon is the first novel to be published by Eggers' McSweeney's Books imprint.

If I have more to say about the way things are written in Lemon than about the way things happen, that's why: I was always dimly aware of my lack of surprise at the way Wendell's lemon encroached on his thoughts. The book's third-person-limited voice seems not to be surprised at anything that happens either. It lovingly paints every small contour and detail of the life Wendell finds himself passing through: "Obviously under normal circumstances there is no great danger of confusing a lemon with the ringing of a telephone, a fruit with a bell-like sound, but when it's just you, a lemon, and a ringing telephone in the middle of a tantamount nowhere, similarities magnify as much as differences, and the human nervous system attunes to minor variations in a minute theme ..." At times Lemon almost feels like a Nicholson Baker-esque novel of ideas, although one wonders if it's still a novel of ideas if the narrating consciousness is basically nuts.

Wendell's general passiveness would be irritating if it weren't for the sense of play the book's narrative voice grants him. And the stylistic quirks, like a chapter entirely in verse and brief flights of fancy about races of giant lemons roaming the earth, would be annoying if it weren't for the feeling of the protagonist (and the author) lurking behind them like quiet, weird, brilliant kids. In the book's second section, Wendell tells the lemon a story about his childhood attempts at flying: "I knew, as do many children, that the simple reason human beings do not just flap their arms and fly is a collective self-delusion that we cannot ... I could have done it, I could have flown all the way to the refrigerator and hovered there eating ice cream at a grownup's altitude. But Heisenberg prevailed; that event was completely, irretrievably altered by my folks' observation of it. ... No matter how lovingly they looked at me, their thoughts bombed me out of the air."

Wendell's "consummation" of the relationship with the lemon is simultaneous with his gutting and preserving it like a cross between a taxidermist and a schoolteacher leading crafts period. "Holding the sticky fruit at its ends between his thumb and forefinger, he dips it into a bowl of sea salt, rotating until evenly covered. He sets it down again, squeezes out some Cadmium alongside it, and pulls off the tiny plastic silo from around the bristles of a brand-new paintbrush." For the last three (short) sections of the book (there are five sections total), Wendell carries this made lemon with him everywhere, the relationship growing more intimate after the physical opening-up, of course. In this part of the book, it's hard not to think about the book's status as a made, crafted thing itself - the author hand-illustrated the cover of each of the 10,000 copies of the book's first hardcover printing, and (on the copies at my local bookstore, at least) a faint pink-orange ghost image of the drawing on the cover of the copy on which it rested overlays the back cover as well.

The really surprising thing is how readable and accessible Lemon is, given all its dreaminess and mannered passages. It helps that the other humans in the book have such distinct voices and characters - Nort the barkeep, Wendell's closest friend Bill and his mate Sally (whose voices have a normalcy which the rest of the book renders mysterious), his block's hallucinating beggar Gloria, his co-worker Michelle who mostly speaks in cross-cubicle glances and emailed limericks. Krauser's other vocation as a playwright is evident here. He's not a bad poet, either - the frequent drops into verse could have been cloying, but Krauser balances rhyme and rhythm casually and intriguingly. Throughout the book, he has a wonderful way of giving you clear images without just handing them to you. Listen to this: "I'll fill you with music now. Steady . . . Someday there will be the technology to bathe the whole earth in the same song, an earphone on each polar cap." (The ellipsis is in the original.)

If you have no patience for the lengthy ruminations of brilliant madmen, Lemon isn't for you. But you read Mindjack, so you're probably into that sort of thing, right? The point of Lemon is not that there is a point, a plot, or an epiphanic climax. The point is the journey, which takes you into and out of a very peculiar spot without ever making you feel like you're moving very much. It's got plenty of story, along with plenty of affably postmodern showmanship, and its language begs to be read aloud. If this novel is any indication, the McSweeney's house style of innovative prose surfaces, plus old fashioned wonder, plus fascination with very unorthodox opinions and states of mind, seems to be heading somewhere good. In the long term, Lemon could appeal (sorry) far beyond the confines of a cult audience.

b i o :
Mike Sugarbaker
is the creator of, which would be more popular if it were a weblog. He previously reviewed Radiohead's Kid A for Mindjack.

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