"The Porn Critic"
by Jonathan Lethem
Originally published in the April 9, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

How is it that after weeks of not even posting brief thoughts on a story from The New Yorker do I already have this one up this morning. Well, work has been terribly.  So terrible, in fact, that I haven’t left the office yet. I had a bit of a lull in the middle of the night and decided to jump ahead of the curve here. If my thoughts are a little strange, well, I’m no Varamo.

Or maybe I am too tired, because it took some time for the meaning of the opening sentence to settle on me:

Kromer couldn’t operate hedonism but these days it operated him, in the way that a punctuated cylinder operates a player piano.

Or wait, after writing it, I’m not so sure the meaning of it has settled. I’ll welcome anyone’s opinion because of my aforementioned state-of-mind, but I really got nothing here.

It’s the 1990s, and the “uncooperative world” was “slouching through a new propriety under Clinton.” The main character Kromer is first introduced as a clerk. It doesn’t take too long, though, even for a short story, for us to find out that he works at a porn shop called Sex Machines. In fact, he writes the Sex Machines’ newsletter. In his home he has towers of VHS cassettes filled with porn, and this gives guests the wrong impression.

And that’s about all I got out of the story, even after reading the equally opaque interview on The New Yorker website. I felt the story was uninteresting and any payoff at the end — which was certainly intended — nonexistent.

Also, maybe it’s just the series of all-nighters and I’m really missing things, but does this make sense to anyone: “The permanent mystery was how much you seemed to know before you knew anything at all. Or maybe the permanent mystery was how stupid you could be and yet how you clung to evidence that your stupidity knew things you didn’t.” I’m happy to be convinced otherwise, but for me this was a bunch of false cleverness and profundity.

So I didn’t like the story, but from a “glass-half-full perspective” with the title of the post, the hits on my blog should go up quite a bit.

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By |2016-07-13T21:20:07-04:00April 2nd, 2012|Categories: Jonathan Lethem, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Lee Monks April 4, 2012 at 6:08 am

    I like Lethem but I sometimes wonder if he isn’t too aware of how aware of how aware of what he’s doing he is. I often think his sentences are heading somewhere interesting – and there are some great ones in Chronic City – but they occasionally end up eating themselves before a full stop can put them out of their antic misery.

  2. Aaron April 5, 2012 at 5:08 am

    I actually liked this one — not enough to go about recommending it, but I thought the writing strong enough to justify even the sections I might not have fully understood. I admit, I staggered over that first line (hell, that first section) a few times before finally settling on how much I admired it, and how well it connected to the rest of the story. Forget all the porn stuff: Kromer is a disconnected, discontent man, the sort who is close enough to write accurately about it, yet not really close enough to participate. He doesn’t feel, he notates.

    This is twice reflected: first with the apt metaphor that casts him as a “punctuated cylinder” in a player piano, then again with his “participation” in a rather dismal three-way with his debauched former schoolmate and the lesbian who is competing with him for their mutual acquaintance’s love. (“He was never certain he’d be welcomed back when he returned”; at one point, he notes that while “It was all good, it was fine, it was O.K.,” he’s actually rather hungry.)

    At the very end, he either takes some agency — demanding that Greta feed him in return for sex — or cedes it, allowing Greta to have her way with him. In truth, however, he remains sadly innocent. Even now, in the act, he remains outside of it. It’s got a weird comic/tragic blend, and though I’ve already blogged my initial response (http://bit.ly/HOCcJe), I think I’ll be reading this one a few more times.

  3. Maxine April 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Went many years between subscriptions to NYorker. I read this story and have regrets, even at reduced price. I haven’t actually enjoyed Lethem since She Climbed Across the Table, though I certainly admired Motherless Brooklyn and mostly got into it. Fortress of Solitude I know I was supposed to admire, but after reading this story, I know why I couldn’t. Self-conscious, somewhat posturing, and in an odd way, not very honest. Stacking sentences full of unexpected images and shock words does not make an honest story that makes you feel anything at all about the cynical life-forms that inhabit it. Plus I prefer narrative flow to labyrinth. I may not be intellectually up to snuff, okay, or at least postmodernistic snuff. Still, this sucked.

  4. jerry April 9, 2012 at 10:13 am

    I like Lethem but I didn’t think this one of his better efforts. I enjoyed Fortress of Solitude and in general I have always liked his stories in TNY but I just didn’t think there was much to this.

  5. Laurentiu April 20, 2012 at 1:54 am

    This is the first 2012 TNY story I just couldn’t finish. Dull and pretentious at the same time, I don’t even know which is worse. Or maybe my mood was not the right one for a Lethem?

  6. Ken June 8, 2012 at 5:01 am

    I thought this quirky and subtle and intriguing. It reminded me of when Manhattan was affordable (relatively speaking) and not a ghetto for the rich. It reminded me of grad school days at NYU. Beyond that, though, I like the style and how the character is on the one hand sort of sleazy (as everyone says he is) and yet could also be viewed as getting a bad rep and more innocent than you’d think.

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