Never judge a book by its cover. Sage advice, but what about its title? I approached Jonathan Lethem’s slim short-story collection Men and Cartoons less than enthusiastically, resigned to reading it because it was a) a gift, and b) short.
The problem? The title, plus the promise that more than one story would concern itself with superherose, or “people with unusual powers that do them no good”. Caped crusaders have never been my thing, and the likelihood that any story featuring direct or indirect references to Marvel comics would move me to anything other than a yawn seemed as far-fetched as Clark Kent’s family-tree .
The opening to the first story was far from promising:
“I first met the kid known as THE VISION at second base, during a kickball game in the P.S. 29 Gymnasium, fifth grade.”
It could well have been written in a different language – American – for the amount of cultural references pieced together that had no direct meaning to me.
Lethem, though, is a storyteller, and an exceptionally good one at that, as the rest of the story demonstrated. The story on the surface is about the narrator re-encountering a comic-book obsessed schoolmate as an adult. Over a dinner party where inventive drinking games are played we’re ushered to a bloodless but nonetheless devestating conclusion. Our buttons are pushed, sympathies toyed with, and perspectives changed all in a carefully timed narrative arc.
As a response to my at-arms-length approach (or reading-down-one’s-nose) it could hardly have been more appropriate. The narrator of the story frames THE VISION as pathetic from the start, while by the end of the short story he has himself been revealed as hopelessly shallow, deluded and insignificant. Ouch.
Of course the superheroes and baseball are just elements on which to hang careful and universal stories. Just as Orhan Pamuk, can transport you to his world without you flinching that you have no direct experience of Hüzün , or Amos Oz can transport you to the Negev desert though all you’ve ever known has been the misty drizzle of Dublin, Lethem manages to take you into what, to me, is a largely American cultural setting, and translate the significance with ease.
What follows is a collection of inventive, witty, and moving stories that scarcely put a foot wrong – in fact, drop that scarcely.
I’ve read elsewhere (the link escapes me at the moment) of people wondering what Lethem book to start with, daunted by his reputation and the seeming lack of substance in his last novel You Don’t Love Me Yet. From the relatively small amount of his work that I’ve read, I couldn’t recommend Men and Cartoons more as a starting point.
Although, if talking Kangaroos in detective novels floats your boat, there’s never been a better moment to pick up Gun, with occasional music, which had me won over from the start – by the title.
Just as someone like Orhan Pamuk can convincingly bring you to Istanbul, or
Lethem’s first story in the collection, The Vision, was enough to cancel out this at-arms-length reading (or perhaps more appropriately reading-down-one’s-nose). The