Thursday, June 01, 2006


Men and Cartoons, by Jonathan Lethem, Read by Various, Random House, 2004


Author Jonathan Lethem first came to my attention when The Tomato, in town for Christmas and browsing at Half-Price Books with me held out a copy of Motherless Brooklyn, the author's engaging trip into noir territory. It's an impressive piece of writing, somewhat similar to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in its crime fiction as told by an unreliable narrator with a mental disability.

Lethem, it also turns out, is an occasional contributor to The New Yorker and more than one short story in his collection Men and Cartoons was familiar to me if not first through that magazine then through just as prestigious a forum. The title of this collection itself lends itself to multiple interpretations, most notably the idea of men who never grow up, who age and still cling to the entertainments of their youth. There is some element of truth in that, but in Lethem, such easy answers are only the barest beginning of the story.

Mostly the stories collected in Men and Cartoons touch upon the idea of a kind of lost innocence, harking back to youth but with jarring anachronistic qualities. The men of the title’s first half live lives in which the past haunts the present, beguiling it with what could have beens and the allure of simpler times. The children who enjoy the collection’s second half of the title faintly grasp the confusing, contradictory, and very, very complex adult world alluded to in the title’s first half.

“Super Goat Man,” the longest piece in the collection was one I had read previously in The New Yorker, and the conceit struck me as an odd bit of writing. Super-Goat Man is a minor, minor, minor superhero, half man half goat, who had a five run comic book and now reads difficult, intellectual literature and lives in a hippy commune house. The story’s narrator first meets him as a child when his parents experiment socializing with bohemian types. Super Goat Man eventually becomes a sort of honorary professor at Corcoran College (where our narrator does his baccalaureate) teaching a class on dissidents and French literary theory, holding late night bull sessions to which the narrator shows up for rarely. A drunken frat prank turned tragedy casts a pall over Super-Goat Man's tenure there. When the narrator returns years later to interview for a job, Super Goat Man is still there, but in a pitiful, near doddering condition.

Remarkably, Lethem spins out this story without it ever seeming strange in the least that such a person exists. He is a curiosity, but never is there any question of Super Goat Man’s existence or much of his backstory. In this rather low-key style, Lethem rolled right over this reader’s tendency to be naturally resistant to the supernatural in otherwise pedestrian literature. At every turn, acceptance of things flows smoothly, credulously. The touches are slyly innocuous — Super Goat Man’s residence in a commune, for instance, reads as an obvious but overlooked possibility. Where else would a half man half goat find lodgings and acceptance so easily won?

Also touching upon the intersection of comic books and the real world is the collection’s opener. “ The Vision,” begins with two fifth graders, one of whom has taken on the identity of Marvel comic book character The Vision, a robot replete with red painted face. Later, the two meet as neighbors in New York at a dinner party hosted by The Vision. There among fourteen strangers, Lethem’s unnamed narrator plays a party game called “Mafia,” a ruse of suppressed hostility and social judgment that involves quiet killings at “night” and banishment by “day.” Irritated by his hosts, the narrator incites the guests to play a game called “I Never,” a Truth or Dare styled confessional that prompts a variety of confessions from each guest with twists of surprising brutality and grace.

As Lethem demonstrates in these two selections, he is an expert at upending a reader’s expectations, setting up situations that would seem to have a familiar trajectory, only to dodge and cut rather remarkably close to the bone. As another example, the story “The Glasses” is a curious piece about a optician customer who swears his glasses keep developing a smudge, and the two opticians who watch his hands to see if he is smudging them. What develops is an unresolved kind of contest of wills almost entirely absent any literary style climax or resolution. Yet Lethem casts a fascinating spell and even fills us with a dreadful sense of tension — all over such a bizarre element.

Likewise “Vivian Relf” is mostly a dialogue between two people at a party who think they recognize each other, then work their way through every single possibility to try and figure out how. They have no point of contact whatsoever and it maddens the main character, Doren. Two years later, they meet again, have the same initial feeling, then realize that they familiarly don’t know each other. Amusingly, Doren is an artist’s assistant who paints on the artists canvas a zig-zag purple mark that is the artist’s trademark. The story’s very absurdity, its very slightness — it is almost more a vignette than true story — mirrors life’s habit of providing us with the same kind of strange, unconcluded oddness.

Two other stories are curious pieces of science fiction metaphors. “The Spray tells of a powerful chemical the police use in robbery cases, a mist sprayed over a crime scene that makes what was stolen visible. Their apartment is filled with salmon-colored glowing items that were once there. When the two spray each other as a gag, their naked lovers show up, sticking to them, salmon colored. An absurd premise, and yet it manages to evoke loss and the unreclaimable past with a stunning efficiency.

“Access Fantasy,” the collection’s darkest contribution is partly about the vicious development of class warfare in the near future and partly social commentary on our own ridiculous time. In those coming years much of the country’s poorer population live in traffic jams, welfare is dropped down from helicopters in the sky and hovercraft are what people with money drive. There is a barrier, a real, semi-permeable barrier between the rich and the poor and robots pick up poor people to do “advertising” work on the rich side where streets number into the thousands, attaching to them a small chip that allows them through the barrier. The chip also takes control of their motor skills at some point and they “advertise” for products, working them into conversation at every turn. The chip makes the poor “tangible” to the rich meaning they can see and hear these compelled advertisements.

And what things they flog in the market. Things like “Very Old Money Lager,” “Success Insurance,” and trips to the moon. Quite quickly, the soulless dead of the rich abuse the “advertisers,” capitalizing on their inability to cease marketing or regain control of their own bodies. The story is a nasty piece of business and one of the finest pieces of literature as social criticism I’ve read in a long, long time.

Generally, I feel a bit suspicious these days about multiple readers for stories. It’s getting more and more prevalent, reaching perhaps its pinnacle in the audio versions of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy with its full cast of over fifteen readers. Here, a different person, including the author, takes a turn at each story, Lethem pulling down the final two. A couple name celebrities lend their talents, the best of the lot being John Linnell from They Might Be Giants and the worst prize going to Sandra Bernhard who is too obvious and knowing a reader, vocally tipping us off with big winks of inflection. The variation of voice adds a little disjointedness to the project, but as it’s a collection, the shifts don’t distract in the least.

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