February 2005

Liz Miller

fiction

Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem

Here's one thing that's come with the mainstream's gradual acceptance of comics: at some point very soon, we're going to start needing to define a new genre of literature -- books written by men who loved comics as boys, men who were so caught up by Silver Age storytelling at one time that it still echoes in their modern prose. And at the forefront of this fictional genre, undoubtedly, will be Jonathan Lethem, whose new book of stories, Men and Cartoons, frequently uses the bold iconography of superheroes -- not to stir wonder in the hearts of lads, but to tell stories about adults, stumbling over the expectations set for adulthood by the pictures of giants in capes and tights.

Men and Cartoons features nine tales that feel lost in time, slightly out of place, caught halfway between nostalgia and futurism. The kaleidoscopic nature of Lethem's fictions give the reader a sense of stepping into a man's imagination and taking a look around, seeing the places where comic books and B-movies and Nietzsche have left the scorch marks of inspiration. Even the stabs at science fiction, such as "Access Fantasy," depicting a world divided between those with apartments and those trapped in an endless traffic jam, are written with 60s pulp language and a millennium sensibility, making for a slightly off-putting, strangely familiar viewpoint.

Lethem plays with a variety of styles -- first-person, streaming narrative, fiction pieced together with correspondence and snippets of dialogue. But despite the extreme shifts in subject matter, the stories are bound by one singular viewpoint, one coherent set of experiences. The protagonists are human and slightly befuddled: boys, not men, still somewhat trapped by the four color serials of adolescence. Finding mystery and wonder in ordinary coincidences, and paying no real heed to the extraordinary.

It's hard to talk about the stories individually after having read them all at once, processed them as one unit. But they're distinctive enough to stand alone, sharp stings of narrative. In "The Vision," Joel is reacquainted with Adam, an old classmate who dressed up daily as a classic Marvel character as a kid, but now plays elaborate parlor party games. Invited to join the party, Joel finds himself tangled in the strange conspiracy game -- and the complexities that arise from relationships established by choosing to put on masks.

"Super Goat Man" doesn't wear masks, confining his extraordinary activities to a small liberal arts college whose students treat him like a wise Buddha -- until the day he can save nothing but a paperclip. "Vivian Reif" is the young woman Doran keeps recognizing at parties, unable to remember how he knows her, until he remembers her as the girl he knows from somewhere, the girl who's always slipping away. "The Dystopianist" glories in the ruin he brings to the worlds he creates on paper, delighting in new ways to rain down fictional destruction.

Not every story is a winner -- "The Glasses", wherein a irate customer harasses opticians over a smudge on his glasses, features sharp dialogue and interesting characters drawn with the briefest of strokes, but it's about as exciting as cleaning off one's own glasses. But its counterpart "The Spray," is the simplest of fables and my favorite of the collection: a man and woman, after their house has been broken into, call the police, who use a magical spray to catalog all the items that have been taken. Surrounded by a vague mist that reveals the lost items, the couple uses the spray on themselves, discovering what the other is still missing.

Men and Cartoons isn't an especially long or heavy read, but the brevity of the stories only increases their impact, using the fantastic elements as a sort of sleight-of-hand, disguising the human elements with a shimmer of supernatural. And that's what I like about this genre of writers -- they may be writing what they know, but the things they know are far from ordinary.

Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday
ISBN: 0385512163
176 Pages