50 Book Challenge #8: Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
I almost forgot that I had read this last month. Not to say that the stories aren't memorable, just that by now it's blurring in my head what books I have read this year that I have still not blogged reviews for. And now I can't find my copy. Maybe I lent it out. I was reminded that I read this when I saw a stack of Lethem books on my daily walk to the same bookstore (they must get sick of seeing me, but the sale stock changes often, it's exactly a mile away and thus a good leg stretch to go to and fro, and I can pick up a free local newspaper to check out concerts and events). I was also reminded that I have not read anything else by Lethem, although his work seems to be highly regarded. Any thoughts about what other Lethem books I should read?
I must admit that I picked this up because of the title. I like cartoons, comic strips, comics, and graphic novels. A lot. I didn't mind so much the "Men and," even though it seems to imply that women can't also like the same, because I thought maybe it was a slightly self-deprecating jab at the stereotype that only men are so emotionally stunted and trapped in adolescence.
It's a good collection. Although weird, slightly absurdist fiction can become tiresome, I usually find it enjoyable--particularly if the absurdity is not merely a gimmick, but a way to convey something of literary value and emotional resonance. Yeah, this sounds like some contemporary lit fic excuse. But I did enjoy Amy Bender's first collection of stories (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt), or at least I did in college. There's something about absurdist short fiction that seems squarely aimed at the young adult, not quite willing to let go of fairy tales, but desiring something of greater subtance. Of course, I was one of those weird precocious kids reading Tolstoy by ten, but that doesn't mean that I wasn't also reading comics. So there's a pleasing suspension of disbelief and arrested development that comes with reading such stories.
In short, the stories run the gamut from the improbable to the impossible, but usually with good insight into human relationships and motivations. There's a weird magical spray. There's a goat-man superhero. There's a little boy who wore a superhero costume who grew up to be a manipulative professor at Columbia. There's bad relationships, complex friendships, petty jealousies, and a lot of failure, because not even super powers or the belief in the supernatural can save you from yourself, or the small injuries inflicted by others.