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Lethem Eat Cake

  Men and Cartoons
Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 2004
Rating: 3.4

Posted: October 31, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

One of the coolest aspects of the recent popularity surge of comic books is their wholehearted embrace by quote-unquote "literary" writers like Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and Jonathan Lethem. Having outed himself as a comics fan from way back, Lethem, whose acclaimed 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude referenced 1970s superhero comics as easily as punk rock and race relations in Brooklyn, actually can't seem to stop writing about the medium. He contributed an essay on Jack Kirby to the recent anthology Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! Writers on Comics (which this writer promises to get around to reviewing one of these days), and now he releases Men and Cartoons, a collection of short stories, which makes further use of his fondness for the genre.

Despite the implication of its title, Men and Cartoons doesn't concern itself solely with superhero comics. In fact, they're only directly referenced in two stories: "The Vision," about a man's reconnection with a childhood acquaintance who used to dress up, and refer to himself, as the Marvel Comics character of the same name; and "Super Goat Man," about the decline of an aging, satyr-like ex-superhero and onetime hippie commune resident.

But even the stories set in a world fully recognizable as our own (most of them, anyway) nod to the limitless world of possibilities inherent in the comics medium. It isn't that Lethem loudly celebrates a geeky, quasi-cool rite of childhood, recently vindicated to a degree by a string of high-profile movies. Rather, he matter-of-factly acknowledges the world of comics as one fundamental part of his larger imaginative landscape, without calling a lot of undue attention to the fact.

That's especially evident in "The Vision," the book's first story. The narrator, having remade the acquaintance of his childhood peer, tries without success to get his new neighbor to acknowledge his past. But the Vision -- now going solely by his given name, Adam Cressner -- refuses to take the bait. In his silence, Cressner doesn't actively downplay his past so much as he seems to say, "What of it?" The narrator, stung by the recent dissolution of a romantic relationship, finds himself frustrated in his instinctual attempts to reduce Cressner to a level at which he feels more comfortable -- at which he can feel superior to this enigmatic person who once identified so strongly with an inhuman character.

Oddly enough, the similar "Super Goat Man" underlines this theme of a narrator's antipathy toward comic book characters. The story opens with the narrator as a child, the former D-list superhero having just moved in down the street. The narrator is vaguely troubled by some mysterious link between Super Goat Man and his father, a link reinforced when he encounters the former hero in college. Years later, visiting the same university he once attended on a job interview, the narrator is again confronted with Super Goat Man's mysterious link to his past, exacerbated now by unreasonable feelings of sexual jealousy.

Other stories here are no less fantastic: "Access Fantasy" concerns a disconcerting world separated by a "one-way permeable barrier," on one side of which are unlucky folks stuck in a never-ending traffic jam, living in their permanently unmoving cars and reduced to covetously devouring videotapes of apartments on the other side of the barrier. "The Dystopianist, Thinking of his Rival, is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door" is a flight of fancy about a writer who makes his living puncturing other writers' visions of Utopia, dreaming up bizarre cataclysmic visions, who is visited by a creature he has only just that moment conceived -- a suicidal sheep capable of conveying its sense of despair to other species.

These stories are somewhat less effective, entangled in their own fantastic webs. Lethem fares better in a handful of (somewhat) more conventional stories, such as "Vivian Relf," in which a man is perplexed by his inability to remember where he's met a woman who feels distractingly familiar. In "The Spray," two lovers douse each other with a concoction that conjures images of missing items (the police use it to determine what's been stolen during robberies). They are then confronted with images of their ex-lovers, whose specters hang uncomfortably in the air, reminders of the flaws in the lovers' current relationship. "Planet Big Zero" concerns two school friends who have grown apart, and their own uncomfortably silent acknowledgment of that fact.

Some of the stories collected here are inevitably more poignant, more affecting than others. That's true of any collection, but the hit-or-miss feeling is increased by the book's length; at nine stories over 160 pages, it feels naggingly slight, and that feeling ultimately extends to the stories themselves. Despite the obvious talent on display, Men and Cartoons feels like a stopgap measure, a way of ensuring that Lethem's fans don't forget him while he works on his next novel. Which is too bad; the best stories here deserve better, and are worth seeking out.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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