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MEN AND CARTOONS by Jonathan Lethem

MEN AND CARTOONS

Stories

By Jonathan Lethem

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 2004
ISBN: 0-385-51216-3
Publisher: Doubleday

Tales that mix the atmospheric Brooklyn settings of novels like Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) with the fantastic backdrops of earlier, SF-inflected works like the author’s Amnesia Moon (1995).

Even the most realistic stories here allude to the comic-book world where Lethem’s characters always find joy and meaning, and odd adventures take place behind brownstone facades. “The Vision” chronicles a dinner party involving some rather sinister group games, including one called “I Never” that the narrator introduces to expose his host’s childhood immersion in an alternate identity as a Marvel Comics superhero. “Access Fantasy,” strongest of the SF pieces, paints a creepily just-plausible future world that’s divided by a “One-Way Permeable Barrier” between have-nots who live in cars stalled in an eternal traffic jam and the privileged folks who have actual apartments. After watching an “Apartment on Tape” (the entertainment of the dispossessed) that seems to show a murder, the narrator volunteers to wear an Advertising patch that lets him cross the barrier so he can tout Very Old Money Lager to strollers in the Undermall, but his efforts to investigate the murder just get him sent back to the street. Other substantive efforts include “Planet Big Zero,” about a comic-strip artist awkwardly reconnecting with a high-school pal who reminds him how safe and smug his life has become, and “Super Goat Man,” a brooding story whose title character emerges from an obscure comic book into hippie-ish Brooklyn in the 1970s, then becomes a professor at a New Hampshire college, where disaster ensues. “The Glasses” offers a short, sharp jab of racial tension, “The Dystopianist” a dark blend of real and surreal. Perennial Lethem themes abound, from failed love affairs to the disintegration of childhood friendships. No story is less than intelligent, though the author’s fans will miss the deeper explorations he makes in his longer works.

A marking-time-between-novels book: pleasant enough, but newcomers to Lethem would do better to start with Motherless Brooklyn (1999).