Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Book #11: Men and Cartoons: Stories by Jonathan Lethem

I probably shouldn't include this one because a) it's only 176 pages long and b) I'd read fully half of the stories included in anthologies and literary magazines. However, I read 'em again and, considering how short my reading time is these days, I'll take whatever I have time to finish.

Like Lethem's other story collection, The Wall of The Sky, The Wall of The Eye, this one mixes great stories with a few that seem half-baked. The best two stories are "Super Goat Man" and "The Vision," both of which I'd read in other collections, and, I suspect, Harper's. The former is about a young man's relationship with an unlikely superhero. Super Goat Man is essentially a hippie who drinks with the narrator's father and possibly has an affair with his mother, then teaches at the small college where the narrator ends up. Although he flubs the only display of superheroics that the narrator ever witnesses, he is still teaching at the college years later when the narrator comes for a faculty interview. In "The Vision," a young writer goes to a dinner party at the house of a remote childhood playmate who used to dress up as a red-faced android. As with Lethem's major works, the characters are well-observed and capable of genuine empathy and cruelty.

Many of the other stories are attempts to write in certain styles - a Borgesian goof, a sci-fi Dashiell Hammett (complete with poor punctuation), an exploration of racial tension in short, unresolved Carver prose - or to explore little ideas, but most of the stories don't compare well with Lethem's novels. Lethem brings a razor-sharp intellect, a heartripping poignancy, and wicked sense of humor to his best novels. Most of the short stories in this collection reveal a bit of each, but overall the effect is unsatisfying. I'm looking forward to reading Lethem's collection of essays The Disappointment Artist, though.

Update: John Leonard, who is out for the snottiest critic award, has rude things to say about Jonathan Lethem's writing in the NY Review of Books. I want to be clear that my disappointment with Men and Cartoons had nothing to do with Lethem's pop culture-obsessed subject matter. Unlike Leonard, who apparently knows geek culture but rejects that part of himself, I don't think that geeky obsessions are a terrible starting point for fiction. Lots of crap writers love Proust. It takes a small-minded man like Leonard to judge a better writer for the things he loves.

Anyway, I also wrote about Lethem's oeuvre back in 2003 for the first issue of The High Hat. Despite the embarrassing chumminess which which I frame my reviews (believe me when I say that I didn't expect anyone to read it, let alone Lethem), I think the rest of the reviews are a damn sight better than Leonard's, if I do say so myself.


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