Monday, September 10, 2007

Men and Cartoons

Review of Jonathan Lethem’s short-story collection Men and Cartoons. Was in the Toronto Star.

There’s an old Kids in the Hall sketch called “Premise Beach.” While two of the Kids shimmy away to surf music on a beach, they take turns coming up with some outlandish conceit: a politician with a slab of meat for a hand, say, or people with gift-wrapped packages for heads. Each what-if leads into its own skit, but that skit turns out to be only seconds long – the actual execution is clearly beside the point.

The short stories of Jonathan Lethem take place on Premise Beach.

Lethem is better known as a novelist; in recent years he’s produced his most giddily entertaining book (Motherless Brooklyn) and his most emotionally ambitious and affecting one (The Fortress of Solitude). Men and Cartoons, his new story collection, furthers some of his recent motifs, particularly comic-book superheros and damaged childhood friendships. But mostly it seems a throwback to his previous collection, 1996’s The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. In his short fiction both then and now, Lethem tries out lots of quirky ideas, many of them fantastical in nature. But he tends to develop those ideas so economically that the resulting narratives feel starved and slight.

There are exceptions. In Lethem’s best pieces, he manages to play with his high-concept starting points in intriguing ways and invest them with emotional heft. A highlight of the earlier book was “Vanilla Dunk,” about a futuristic basketball league in which the players wear high-tech suits that allow them to download the skills of past greats. Lethem has lots of fun working out the logistical details of that premise, but he also crafts a gripping story about an obnoxious young white star and his brooding black teammate, encompassing themes of loyalty, integrity, and race.

In Men and Cartoons, the class of the collection is “Super Goat Man.” The narrator, Everett, is a striving Brooklyn-raised intellectual (not unlike the hero of The Fortress of Solitude, or Lethem himself) who repeatedly encounters the title character, a retired superhero. In the 1970s, Super Goat Man moves into Everett’s neighbourhood and befriends his parents; years later, he ends up teaching at the same New Hampshire liberal arts college that Everett attends. It’s to Lethem’s credit that the story’s central novelty, the idea of a humanoid goat moving through an otherwise-realistic milieu, is quickly superseded by Everett’s complicated feelings toward his semi-mentor. Those feelings are a little overexplicated in the end, but “Super Goat Man” remains a memorable portrait.

Most stories in Men and Cartoons, though, are draped on thin conceits and add little to them. In one, a magical police spray is used to identify missing items after a burglary; when the police leave the spray behind, it turns out to also reveal ghostly images of a couple’s past lovers. Another piece summarizes a man’s years-long semi-obsession with a woman he meets at a house party, culminating in an awkward dinner.

Lethem’s prose throughout is capable but perfunctory. In any given scene, there’s little in the way of sensory detail or startling character notes – just the cold outlines of the tracks of the plot leading forward. The people in these stories tend to be limned only by the vaguest of dissatisfactions; they’re clearly afterthoughts to the situations into which Lethem thrusts them.

Still, much of Men and Cartoons is at least superficially entertaining – but when even Lethem’s inventiveness fails him, the result is sheer tedium. “The Glasses” reads like a comedy sketch that wouldn’t survive the first table read. And the dystopia “Access Fantasy” relies on such already-exhausted sci-fi tropes as advertising run amuck.

If Lethem’s made a recent breakthrough in his novels, he’s still struggling to bring a new resonance to his work in the short-story form. One strangely promising development may be “The National Anthem,” the closing piece in Men and Cartoons. Written as a letter from one old friend to another, it’s unwieldy and exposition-heavy. But it’s one of the few pieces here that feels like it was born from some churning emotional impulse, not just from idle speculation.

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