Jonathan Lethem famously isolated the moment the Science Fiction Writers of America association chose to award best novel of the year to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (in turn relegating Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to second tier) as a turning point in science fiction’s history. The opportunity for the genre to head in a more literary direction missed, Lethem lamented the association’s inability to recognize the moment and push science fiction toward higher standards. Walking the talk, Lethem himself has never been a popular genre figure precisely due to the fact his stories rarely if ever run anywhere near the middle of the road. Backing this idea up is his collection of short stories Men and Cartoons (2004).
A very brief collection, Men and Cartoons, as the dichotomy hints, would have the juvenile and mature natures of its characters examined in short fiction form. In “The Vision”, an irritable man attends a party where the guests are playing a social deduction game called Mafia (aka Werewolf). Unhappy with the game, he introduces something more to his liking into the group dynamic. Lethem biting off more than he can chew, “Access Fantasy” ostensibly tells of cyberpunk-ish future where a man living in his car enters the neighborhood of the affluent to investigate a murder. Possible that the story is full-on satire (versus my impression it is only partial satire), the setting is as close to middle-of-the-road sf as the collection gets, and if indeed only partially satire, does just an average job fleshing out the target of its derision.
Like an idea dragged from a drawer and never polished, “The Spray” is an indulgent idea that thankfully ends quickly. Not to say it’s a poor story, only that Lethem quickly realizes the idea of a spray the police use which detects things that have been taken is a short street for fiction. A couple getting their hands on the can after the police investigate a burglary at their home, antics are aplenty when the spray is applied to the people. In perhaps the most poignant piece in the collection, “Planet Big Zero” tells of two best friends in high school and the wandering directions their lives take after graduation. In these two men, Lethem captures real but fleeting bit of humanity we’ve all encountered.
A story that never explains itself but would rather the reader piece it out, “The Glasses” tells of an irascible client who goes back to the optometrists who recently sold him glasses to find out why they smudge without him touching them. Clearly a piece on race in the most veiled yet obvious terms, Lethem highlights how opposing interests damage unilateral communication. A story that had me giggling out loud, “The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door” tells of a writer of dystopian fiction encountering his best idea/worst enemy, something which brings to light the writer’s real feelings. A wonderful piss take on the flood of dystopian fiction saturating the market, Lethem hilariously pulls the plug on the zeitgeist. (Sylvia Plath sheep!! I’m still laughing!!)
Possessing the best title in the collection, “Super Goat Man” tells of a superhero—the titular cloven-hooved beast—who settles down in the narrator’s NY neighborhood. Growing up to enter academia in a small New England liberal arts college, the narrator finds a surprise there: a rival in the goat. Let conflict ensue (as absurd as it intentionally is) such that the character’s real motives may exist in relief. The collection closes on likely the weakest story in the collection, “The National Anthem”. About a man having trouble getting over a break up that was an affair to begin with, Lethem attempts some emotional storytelling but struggles maintaining consistency in tone.
A very peculiar, unusual collection of stories, Men and Cartoons serves as an indirect companion piece to his year-prior novel The Fortress of Solitude. The majority of stories about a contrast between youthful (i.e. cartoonish) mindset and something more adult and mature (i.e. men), Lethem seeks to highlight that each feed into one another, giving rise to adults who are not quite mature and young people who have the rudiments of maturity in them. The best aspect of the collection is that few if any of the stories clearly fit any standard mold that might exist in science fiction or fantasy. Short, sharp, and intelligent even if the holes appear in consistency, they require the reader be an active participant to glean full value—something which Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow likewise requires, natch.
The following are the nine stories collected in Men and Cartoons:
Planet Big Zero
The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door
Super Goat Man
The National Anthem