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Men and Cartoons

by Jonathan Lethem

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
What is it about the idea of a superhero that is so fascinating to the male psyche? Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson starred in a movie a few years back called Unbreakable. It went relatively unnoticed in the press, not a big blockbuster or anything, but I was completely enthralled with the storyline. The idea in a nutshell was what if superheroes really do exist? What if you could actually have super powers and not know it? That was it. Everything about the setting was realistic, except that one man, an average everyday working guy, suddenly discovered that he was Unbreakable.

I think it is the hope of untapped potential. Like potential energy, deep within each of us there lies dormant a superpower of some sort - superhuman strength, invisibility, flight - that, if we could just tap into it, would free us from this mundane 9-5 existence and allow us to really do something. Like the Kinks said, "Wish I could fly like Superman…"

Over the past 11 years, Jonathan Lethem's fiction has criss-crossed Sci Fi and Detective lit. After publishing Motherless Brooklyn, a detective-themed novel, in 1999 he took up with the McSweeney's crowd, focusing for a while on literary short stories, magazine pieces and the like. In 2003, Lethem published The Fortress of Solitude, a novel that not only reached autobiographically into the 1970s Brooklyn of his childhood, but also tapped a into one of his longtime obsessions - superheroes.

In Men and Cartoons, Jonathan Lethem revisits the realms of the super-powered and the surreal. Not all of the stories concern themselves with the Cartoon aspect of the collection's title. Some deal squarely with Men, or more specifically, boys becoming men and learning about life, loss, and yes, love. All of the collection's stories, however, bear the stamp Jonathan Lethem's trademark wit.

"The Vision" begins the collection by braiding the twin motifs of Men and Cartoons. The story's title refers to a Marvel Comics superhero android, a persona claimed by Adam Kressner, when the narrator first meets him on the kickball court in fifth grade. Adam doesn't actually possess any super powers, but his adoption of the persona make him a formidable presence in elementary school and, as the narrator learns, later in life.

Lethem dips into his Science Fiction roots in "Access Fantasy," a future in which apartment-people and street-people exist in one space, yet are separated by a "one-way permeable barrier," that denies them access to the other world, the other population. Street-people live in their cars, on gridlocked streets and highways upon which actual movement is only a dream ("Why hadn't he gone downtown at that last turn-off months ago?"). They can only gain access to the world of the apartment-people if they are picked up by the advertising robots, who scour the streets daily for the young and the beautiful among them to take across the one-way impermeable barrier for the purposes of advertising.

"The Spray," is a cartoonish tale in which a couple gets their hands on a fantastic chemical compound that when sprayed will reveal the luminous outlines of lost things. The spray, of course, has disasterously unforeseen consequences when used inappropriately.

Other stories remain securely in the realm of realism, introspective tales that follow their ordinary male narrators through time, shedding light upon the fleeting nature of our relationships. "Vivian Relph" is woven from the disconnected and chance meetings of a man and a woman who seem very familiar to one another and yet aren't. "Planet Big Zero" is a tale of loss, in which the melancholic narrator is struck by the divergence of his life from that of a childhood friend.

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