>The New Yorker: "The King of Sentences" by Jonathan Lethem

>Although this was fun to read, and seems like it must have been fun to write, it doesn’t do enough for me to climb into the year’s top ten stories. Two young New Yorkers live together and worked in bookstores, worshipping books and, specifically, sentences within books, finding them so erotic that they enter into the couple’s lovemaking. They are particularly fond of the sentences of one author whom they dub the King of Sentences. They learn that he moved from Greenwich Village a long time ago (at about the time his book jacket photo was frozen in time) and they track him down to a post office where they go in hopes of meeting him. They’ve written a postcard of warning, so the police and the author are alerted. In the process of telling the story, Lethem allows himself to write some pretty great sentences of his own (although he apparently isn’t opposed to the occasional comma splice, I’m pleased to note).

“The King of Sentences only wrote, beavering away himself on a dam of quintessence, while wholly oblivious of public indifference and of a sales record by now likely descending to rungs occupied by poets.”

Heh. And then of course the climax of the story is the eventual meeting between these aspiring writers (the boy – they seem like children to me – has brought a manuscript with him to show the King) and I think that’s where opinions on the story will diverge. I didn’t love that scene. I’ll be interested to hear what others thought.

December 17, 2007: “The King of Sentences” by Jonathan Lethem

About the author


  1. >By the time I finished reading it, I realized my eyebrows were bunching towards each other. I liked it, but I’m full of questions. It’s like if the cop walked in in the middle of everything, I wouldn’t get the significance. I guess that’s it, I didn’t get the significance of things.

    For starters, why did The King want to give Clea and the narrator money? At first, I warmed-up to the idea that he was paying for something sexual, but “he wants to get it over with”. If this is true, is it like he wants to do it, but he’s anxious to get it over with because it’s something he put behind him?
    Another thought was maybe he plaguerized his work and was routinely blackmailed.

    Another pickle was the part where he just shreds their clothes, what was he feeling? Was he upset? .. or was he just err .. in the moment?

    I’d like to hear your opinions.

  2. >I’m with you. I also thought the money was not for something sexual until the couple offers that, but if not then what? I didn’t go to plagiarism as an explanation for his past troubles though – I assumed that was drugs or sex, dealers or women. And, yeah, the shredding of the clothes – don’t know what that was about. Maybe this really happened to Lethem . . . which doesn’t make it a good story, of course.

  3. >I didn’t like the story. In addition to the previous comments, it seems to suffer from technical problems that I would have expected an editor to correct. For example,

    Losing patience, we sidled to the main counter. “What time on the average day does the box holder typically, you know, pick up?”

    This makes no sense at all. Since the narrator is recalling his own speech, it seems completely implausible that he’d remember unconscious fumblings such as “typically, you know”

    Paul Epstein

  4. >He offers the money because he figures he is being blackmailed. Give it another read and you will see a sentence where he discusses that the king must have dealt with this before.

  5. >When I read the story, I assumed that the King shredded their clothes so that he had a safe escape, so that they couldn’t follow him (although perhaps those two would be zany enough to wander nude through an Econo Lodge, come to think of it)… From the way that the cop described his reservations about the author’s previous actions (I thought deviant sexual behavior) and the anal cone side comment, my first thought was that this was a reference to homosexuality… but for a recent story, this seems insufficient for the cop to be judgmental….

  6. >Lethem’s story was fun to read because it had a certain literary tone, but it really wasn’t a very good story. It was, ironically, more about the sentences than the content. And I don’t think sentences ARE the content, as the chief of police said in the cop car. Although that was profound, to have a police officer able to throw an idea to the two bookworms.

  7. >I thought the story was a jibe at all over-the-top fans, and I found it entertaining. There were questions posted about some darker side to the "Kings" past, and I took this to mean he was never convicted, but widely (at least in the small community) assumed to be guilty of some illicit, aggressive manner of sodomy. I also think I know what the deal was about the money the "King" began to offer. Clearly (to me, anyway) he thought he was about to be blackmailed and was so used to it he even had a notion of how much cash to bring. As for the clothes-shredding scene, I think at this point the "King" began to realize he had a couple real idiots on his hands and decided to toy with them a little. You know, you order somebody to do something, and are them somwhat surprised when they actually DO it? So you want to see how far this will go.
    The sheriff seemed like the only normal person in the story. He's the key to understanding what's really happening. Great story.

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