The 1950s are called by many America’s golden age. With the second world war in the rearview mirror, the nation once again focused on developing itself and settled back into routine. New jobs came available in the post-war economy and roles were reestablished in middle-class families; men worked and women stayed at home to maintain house and children (take a look at any Betty Crocker cookbook if you doubt this), and everything became, well, golden. But naturally, no situation is perfect. Feminist concerns aside (and there are many), life for men, though easier, was also not paradise in this time. As the sole monetary provider, there was pressure to provide. Each husband dealing with it differently, losing one’s job or not being promoted at work affected home life in a variety of important ways, and vice versa. Though utilizing a presumptuous motif, the heart of Richard Matheson’s 1956 The Shrinking Man examines such a man for whom the pressure of the times becomes too great.
The Shrinking Man opens with Scott Carey, already a thumbnail-sized man, running a gauntlet of basement odds and ends trying to escape a black widow. Weaving in and around paint cans, clamoring over garden hoses, and trying to squeeze under box tops to escape the murderous spider, the simplest household object to us is to Carey an insurmountable obstacle. Life difficult beyond belief in such a familiar environment, Matheson feeds flashbacks into the narrative to tell the story of how the little man came to be trapped in his own basement as the little man lives his last week before shrinking to nothing. The question is: will the spider get him first?
“This is the bottom, he thought, the very bottom. There is nothing lower than for a man to become an object of pity. A man could bear hate, abuse, anger, and castigation; but pity, never. When a man became pitiable, he was lost. Pity was for helpless things.” is a thought uttered by Carey during a flashback. Such rumination mixed with a cartoonish plot, The Shrinking Man straddles the Golden and the New Age of science fiction. On one side it is an action/adventure story of surviving a wild basement ‘jungle’—the black widow, a cat, and any human who comes stomping around with their big feet continually a threat. On the other side, it is a slow descent into depression and the deteriorating relationship with Carey’s family and colleagues as his body decreases from virile man to doll-sized weakling. Drowning in self-pity, Carey attempts to live a normal life, but his psychological state and home life just won’t let him. Newspapers come calling, neighbors peek into their home, and his wife distances herself with each step that must be taken to accommodate his decreasing size. Sexually, physically, and emotionally he is indeed a pitiable man.
The majority of The Shrinking Man is thus a disparity of modes: the fantastic and the realist. The comic book aspect lightening the novel, some readers will feel it undermines the seriousness of Carey’s real life situation, while others will revel in the usage of the fantastic to symbolize a man’s psychological state. It is therefore the ending, which brings the two into a state of synthesis, that is to be most commended. Functioning in both modes, Matheson resolves Carey’s situation in satisfactory—and surprising—fashion.
But for as synthetic as the novels’ conclusion is, Matheson will not win any points for style. Written in the most straight-forward of prose, there is little to delight in or enliven the narrative. At the same time, there is little to criticize from a technical perspective. The delivery flat, many thoughts are left short while the story is pushed steadily forward in competent fashion, conveying a mature story in 200 pages, but one which lacks strong prose.
In the end, The Shrinking Man is a product of its time, but holds up relatively well to the half-century that has passed since its publishing. An adventure story where the dimensions of the world have suddenly expanded to the point the simplest set of stairs are an insurmountable obstacle, Matheson uses the setup to symbolize one man’s psychological emasculation. The book is thus a representative sample of the transition from Golden Age (comic book motifs) to the New Age (an era in sci-fi with more human concerns). It remains up to the reader to determine whether the one properly motivates the other. The ending, it must be said, is a nice touch.